On Thursday, the Virginian-Pilot reported that the state’s Senate majority leader had overseen the editing of a college yearbook that included a number of offensive slurs and images, including photos of students in blackface.
Sen. Tommy Norment, who has served on the state legislature since 1992, was the third high-ranking Virginia politician to face accusations related to blackface in the past week. It started last Friday, when a photo surfaced of Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page featuring a man in blackface and another man in a KKK robe. (After initially apologizing and admitting his mistake, Northam reversed course and denied that he is either of the men). Then, on Wednesday, state Attorney General Mark Herring, who had recently called on Northam to resign, confessed to and apologized for dressing in blackface at a party in 1980 while a student at the University of Virginia. Meanwhile, sexual assault accusations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax became public on Sunday. (He has denied the allegations from a 2004 incident.)
It has been a week-long dumpster fire for Virginia politics, and it continued on Thursday. Norment’s 1968 yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute featured a high volume of racist material. Published the same year black students were first allowed to enroll at the school, it included the N-word, according to the Virginian-Pilot, and also featured slurs directed at Asians and anti-Semitic jokes.
Norment, who is now 72, said in a statement he was “not surprised that those wanting to engulf Republican leaders in the current situations involving the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General would highlight the yearbook from my graduation a half century ago.” He added that blackface is “abhorrent in our society and I emphatically condemn it.”
Some observers have theorized about the conditions and demographics that made the practice such a shameless one for so many now-powerful Virginians. Was it the class of the people they ran with, or the location, or just the times? Tim Kaine, a Senator from the state, distanced himself in his defense: He told reporters that he wouldn’t have ever donned blackface because he grew up in Kansas City.
At this point, it seems likely that journalists and politicians are scrambling to find old yearbooks, and it seems just as likely that more photos will emerge. The New York Times, in surveying yearbooks from Northam’s medical school, Eastern Virginia Medical School, found other instances of racist costumes from the 1980s. When the Times asked former students from that time about the blackface incidents, some said it had seemed normal and that it was common at costume parties or at talent shows. “It was done as part of a dress up, being somebody you’re not,” said one man who graduated with Northam. “It was not done as some kind of racial thing.” A black doctor who graduated around the same time disagreed that it was just a matter of the norms of the time and told the Times that he considered blackface offensive then, too.
In 2014, the medical school’s president, Dr. Richard Homan, ended the publication of yearbooks after learning that the previous year’s edition had included photos of students wearing Confederate outfits and flags. On Tuesday, Homan apologized for the images’ appearance in the past and announced an investigation into the campus culture that allowed their publication.
For the all the attention this week has placed on Virginia, it’s clear the issue isn’t specific to the state. According to a YouGov poll conducted from Saturday to Tuesday, just more than half of respondents said it was unacceptable for a white person to wear blackface. As the Washington Post reported, 16 percent of respondents called it “acceptable,” while another 26 weren’t sure. (These numbers also broke down by party lines: 81 percent of Democrats called it unacceptable, while only 44 percent of Republicans said the same). This problem may be a Virginia one, and it may be a historical one, but it’s still a decidedly American one.
This post was updated to add the name of the school Norment attended: Virginia Military Institute.