Herring apologizes for wearing blackface

Published 10:01 pm Wednesday, February 6, 2019

By Corrine Fizer

Capital News Service

Following Gov. Ralph Northam’s admission that he darkened his skin for a Michael Jackson contest in 1984, Attorney General Mark Herring acknowledged Wednesday that he once wore blackface to a college party nearly 40 years ago.

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“In 1980, when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate in college, some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow, and perform a song,” Herring wrote in a public apology.

“It sounds ridiculous even now writing it. But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes — and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others — we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.”

Herring stated that this was a one-time occurrence and that he accepted full responsibility for the incident. He said that “the shame of that moment has haunted me for decades” but that “this conduct is in no way reflective of the man I have become in the nearly 40 years since.”

“That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others,” Herring said. “It was really a minimization of both people of color, and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then.”

Herring issued his statement five days after the discovery of a racist photo on Northam’s page of the 1984 yearbook for Eastern Virginia Medical School. The photo showed a man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

On Friday night, Northam said he was in the photo and apologized. However, on Saturday afternoon, he said that he wasn’t in the picture but that he had worn blackface to a dance party as a part of his Michael Jackson costume.

On Saturday night, Herring, the 57-year-old attorney general, called on Northam to resign.

“It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down,” Herring said in a statement. “I have spoken with Lieutenant Governor Fairfax and assured him that, should he ascend to the governorship, he will have my complete support and commitment to ensuring his success and the success of our Commonwealth.”

If Northam resigns, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is first in line to become governor. But this week, Fairfax has faced an accusation of sexually assaulting a woman almost 15 years ago. Fairfax has denied the allegation, called it a smear campaign and asserted that his interaction with the woman was consensual.

Unlike Northam and Fairfax, Herring has suggested the possibility of stepping down.

“In the days ahead, honest conversations and discussions will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve as attorney general,” said Herring, who announced in December that he planned to run for governor in 2021.

“But no matter where we go from there, I will say that from the bottom of my heart, I am deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation.”

Northam, Fairfax and Herring are all Democrats. If both the governor and lieutenant governor resign, the attorney general would become governor. If the attorney general should also resign, succession would fall to the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Republican Kirk Cox.

Shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, Cox issued a statement saying, “The revelations against and admissions by the leaders of the executive branch are disturbing.”

“The allegations of sexual assault against Lt. Governor Fairfax are extremely serious. The Lt. Governor, the alleged victim, and Virginians all deserve a full airing of the facts,” Cox’s statement said.

“The belated admission from Attorney General Herring is shocking. He should adhere to the standard he has set for others or he loses credibility.”