There is plenty of evidence in the McGuire Woods report on the Northam/Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) blackface scandal to confirm whatever prejudices and preconceptions you had beforehand. If you believe that Governor Ralph Northam was not one of the figures in the infamous EVMS school yearbook photo, there are plausible though inconclusive arguments to support your view. If you believe he was, there are equally plausible-but-inconclusive arguments to back you up.
This morning I read the portions of the report (which you can access here), that pertain to Northam. (I skipped the lengthy sections probing EVMS’s commitment to “diversity and inclusion” since the 1980s.) My two main conclusions:
- The investigation, though extensive, was far from exhaustive. The investigators neglected to pursue lines of inquiry that would have added important context.
- Regardless of whether Northam was one of the two figures in the notorious photo, the odds are strong that he submitted the photo to the yearbook.
Herewith, I present what I believe are the most salient facts and arguments on both sides.
Arguments for Northam’s innocence
After initially acknowledging when the yearbook scandal broke that he was one of people in a photograph showing a man in blackface standing next to a hooded figure in Ku Klux Klan garb, Northam backtracked. Upon reflection, he said, he did not believe that either of the individuals was him. Further, he suggested that the photograph might have been placed on his yearbook page by error. The report summarizes his thinking after he conferred with a Virginia Military Institute classmate, three EVMS classmates, and his girlfriend at the time.
The former VMI roommate, who is now a practicing dentist, told him it was not Governor Northam for several reasons. First, he told Governor Northam his teeth had never looked as good as the individual in blackface, and he did not think Governor Northam wore bowties or plaid pants. The former VMI roommate also noted that the person in blackface held beer in his right hand, whereas Governor Northam usually uses his left hand. One classmate told Governor Northam it was not him in the Photograph, and that the classmate was aware of several instances in the 1984 yearbook where pictures were misplaced. Other classmates told him the yearbook process was chaotic. Finally, Governor Northam’s girlfriend at the time told him she had never seen the Photograph.
Governor Northam also believes he is not in the Photograph based on the size of the individuals in the Photograph. He noted the person in blackface had much larger legs than he did in medical school, and the person in the KKK robes is much shorter than he is. Governor Northam commented that he would remember standing next to someone dressed in KKK robes. Further, Governor Northam states that he “remembered like it was yesterday” dressing up as Michael Jackson. Throughout our interview, Governor Northam stated he was “positive” it was not him in the Photograph.
When asked who might have been in the photograph, Northam professed that he did not know.
In support of Northam’s line of thinking, the McGuire Woods report found that the assembly of the yearbook was, at times, a chaotic process. Students handled the publication with only token oversight by faculty or staff. One student working on the 1984 yearbook commented that most students were exhausted at this late stage of medical school and had limited time to spend on the yearbook.
He only remembered ten to twelve students assisting with the process, and he remember[ed] calling other classmates and trying to convince them to help. … [The student] told us that there were boxes of yearbook-related materials, mostly unsealed envelopes with photographs, which were assembled by other students. [Another student] repeatedly described the process as chaotic, and assembled in bits and pieces. He does not believe that he or the other staff went through the yearbook to ensure the accuracy of the information or that photographs were in the correct place before publication. … He commended during our interview that the process was a “nightmare” and a “walk through hell.” … He concluded that it was possible a photograph could have fallen from one envelope into another, but stated the likelihood of something getting misplaced was not high, but also not impossible.
McGuire Woods found no way to either prove or disprove the theory that the photograph was placed on Northam’s page by error.
Arguments for Northam’s guilt
The photo depicts two people at a party drinking beer. Although the report does not say so in so many words, material in the document makes clear that (1) there was a party sub-culture at EVMS, (2) drinking was common, and (3) it was a common practice for students to submit photos from drinking parties to the yearbook. States the report: “The yearbooks with some frequency display photographs and content containing sexual innuendo, depictions of students drinking alcohol, and other conduct that may not be considered professional and which could be perceived as offensive.”
For whatever reason, the McGuire Woods investigative team made the decision not to summarize the content in the report. This strikes me as a clear oversight. Students, even medical school students, tend to be young and immature, and they often do things that larger society finds offensive or scandalous. They do things and celebrate actions that they find cringe-worthy later in life. To ascertain whether or not Northam participated in a drinking-and-partying crowd, it would be helpful to know as much about the drinking-and-partying sub-culture. In interviews with McGuire Woods, Northam downplayed any association with drinking and partying.
When asked about his social life at EVMS, Northam claimed to have had little interest in social events. He described going to a retreat the first week of medical school at a hotel in Bridgewater.
He said classmates were doing things he did not condone, like stealing drinks from a vending machine, and taking a canoe off the roof of a family’s car and placing the canoe in a pool, and he thought, “these weren’t my kind of people.” …
Governor Northam said that there was no question that people in his class were big partiers. He did not like studying and was very easily distracted, but he and his roommate would stay longer at the library longer than anyone else. … The party life was not a part of who he was.
Remarkably, the report neglects to ponder the significance of the single quote that Northam thought worthy of inclusion on his yearbook page: “There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.”
To any sentient being, that would indicate that Northam saw himself as a party guy. Yet, as far as can be told from the content of the report, the investigators did ask Northam what he meant by that quote, nor is there any indication in the report they asked Northam’s classmates about his social life.
There are hints in the report that EVMS students exhibited “attitude.” Former students talked about P.O.E.T.S. events that stood for “Piss on Everything, Tomorrow’s Saturday.” These campus events were designed to bring students and faculty members together. The administration used money from vending machine sales to purchase a keg of beer for each event. Most people had only one or two beers, so these administration-sanctioned events saw no poor behavior, says McGuire Woods. The point that McGuire Woods misses is that the P.O.E.T.S. name typifies the flippant, almost in-your-face attitude of many students. The fact that faculty and staff permitted the name to be used is indicative of a laissez-faire attitude on their part as well.
A common way for young people — especially young men — to express “attitude” is to flout societal norms. While dressing in blackface was not the cardinal sin it is regarded today, it still was widely regarded as inappropriate, in conflict with adult norms in the academic setting. Indeed, in the 1980s, depictions of blackface and other racially offensive material was not uncommon:
Yearbooks from the 1980s feature several blackface photographs, which are most prevalent in the 1984 and 1985 yearbooks. This includes the Photograph on Governor Northam’s page in the 1984 yearbook in the person in blackface wearing a hat, sunglasses, plaid pants, and jacket, and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robes. Other photographs include the photograph of a student in black face, dressed as Diana Ross, which was included in both the 1984 and 1985 yearbooks. A group photograph on another personal page in the 1984 yearbook shows three men in blackface dressed and performing as The Supremes.
Other photographs and content in the 1980s yearbooks includes a headshot of a professor wearing dark glasses with the caption “Ray Charles,” and students dressed as Native Americans with the caption “Ugh, firewater causes Bell’s palsy” in 1981. There is a photograph of a faculty member holding a mug that says, “We can’t get FIRED! Slaves have to be sold” in the 1984 and 1985 yearbooks, and a quote under a photograph on a personal page in 1985 stating “Negro Triad.” There are also multiple photographs of individuals in costume, wearing Latin American, Asian, or Middle Eastern dress. The 1980s yearbooks contain many photographs and captions with sexual scenarios that could be considered offensive and/or sexist. Most of this material is included in yearbooks from 1980 to 1985.
- There was a drinking-and-partying culture at EVMS in which participants frequently dressed in costume, including blackface.
- In contrast to his recollection 30 years later, Northam’s own words jokingly indicate that he enjoyed drinking.
- Publication of “racy” photos of a sexual or ethnic nature was fairly common in the yearbook in the 1980s.
None of constitutes proof. But this context makes it easy to believe that Northam drank, partied, dressed up in costume, and/or hung out with people who partied and dressed in costume.
In the initial phases of the blackface scandal, the media made much of the fact that Northam went by the nickname of “Coonman” at VMI, on the assumption that the reference to “coon,” a derogatory name for blacks, was racist. That was one plausible interpretation of the nickname, but there might have been others. At the time, I urged people to withhold judgment until more was known about the derivation of the nickname.
The McGuire Woods investigators interviewed Northam extensively but apparently never asked him how he got that nickname. That strikes me as an extraordinary oversight. If Northam had proffered an alternative explanation — one of his buddies thought his face resembled that of a coon dog, for instance — we would be more inclined to a benign interpretation of events. But if he had no explanation, one would feel more justified in imputing a racist connotation to the nickname and believing that Northam was comfortable either appearing in blackface or submitting a photograph of friends in blackface.
In summary, I am inclined to think that the yearbook photo depicts either Northam or his party pals. I acknowledge that there is no proof, just a preponderance of the evidence. Sadly, the McGuire Woods report didn’t delve as deeply into the issue as it could have, and it left important questions unaddressed.
I do have a theory about the photograph that could tie up some loose ends. I haven’t seen it postulated anywhere else, and I will lay it out in the next post.There are currently no comments highlighted.