Ralph Northam’s racism controversy has tumbled down the memory hole. The governor has stuck with the story that the photograph appearing in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook of a man in blackface was not of him, and a McGuire Woods inquiry failed to find any evidence to prove otherwise. Critics who once called for his resignation have fallen silent as the governor pivoted left on social justice issues. And the media, which normally loves a good scandal, apparently has concluded that there is little left to be discovered.
But politicians and reporters are overlooking the obvious identity of the man in the yearbook photo – it is of Ralph Northam dressed in Michael Jackson costume.
Northam has confessed to having donned blackface garb in imitation of the King of Pop at a dance contest in San Antonio not long after graduating from EVMS. But the yearbook picture — showing a man standing next to a smaller figure dressed in Klan robes — was not him, he insists. He is understandably dogmatic on the point. It is one thing to have dressed in blackface 35 years ago, quite another to have made light of the Klan.
Any investigation into the yearbook photo should start with the observation that the two figures are dressed in costume and that both are holding cans of beer. Clearly, they are attending a costume party. That raises the logical question: If the figure in blackface — the Blackface Dude, if you will — is in costume, who is he imitating?
There are several clues. Blackface Dude had darkened his skin and donned an Afro wig. It doesn’t take a Hercule Poirot to suggest he was imitating a black person. He also wore a fedora with a dark-colored band, sunglasses, a bow tie, and plaid pants.
Was there a black celebrity active in 1984 who might fit that description? Yes, as a matter of fact, there was. A scan of Google Images yields photographs of Michael Jackson wearing a fedora and sunglasses. A Pinterest account owned by a Michael Jackson fan group displays a white fedora with a dark band autographed by the superstar himself. Other photos show Jackson clad in a bow tie and, as a youthful performer, in plaid pants.
But the conclusive clue is revealed from a close-up examination of Blackface Dude’s right hand holding a beer. Three of the four fingers appear distinctly in the photo, but the fourth — the ring finger — appears to be missing. However, close examination of the fuzzy image suggests that the finger was wrapped in white tape. What black celebrities active in 1984 wore white tape on their fingers? As it happens, Jackson did.
Northam’s reasons for believing that the photograph was not him are astonishingly lame. He claims that the figure in Blackface had “larger” legs than he did as a young man. Yet a side-by-side-comparison of photographs shows no such thing. He cites a dentist friend who noted that Northam’s teeth “had never looked as good” as those of the person in blackface. While Blackface Dude’s smile does appear bright in contrast to the darkened skin, the photo quality is so poor that individual teeth are not visible. Indeed, a forensic facial recognition report commissioned by Northam’s own law firm found the image to be “not of sufficient quality to conduct a comparison with other photographs.”
Northam also suggested the figure could not have been him because he worked so hard as a medical student that he had little time for drinking and partying. Yet in an interview with McGuire Woods investigators, he admitted to attending at least two events where alcohol was served, and in one of the photos on his yearbook page (not the blackface photo) he was holding a beer. He even supplied the following yearbook quote: “There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.”
While he conjectured that the photograph must have been published on his yearbook page in error, neither Northam nor the authors of the McGuire Woods report have provided any evidence that it was, or even a coherent theory on how it could have been.
Northam initially acknowledged that the man in blackface was him. But upon realizing that he could not apologize his way out of the ensuing scandal, he changed his mind and declared that the man was not him. Yet he admitted to having dressed in blackface later in 1984, and the truth should be clear for all to see: Just as Northam dressed in Michael Jackson blackface at the San Antonio dance contest, he did so in Norfolk while at EVMS. He darkened his skin with shoe polish, wrapped his finger in white tape, and adorned himself in a white fedora, sunglasses, bow tie and plaid pants. He grinned widely while standing beside a fellow partier attired in Klan robes. And he submitted the photo to the EVMS yearbook without any thought that there was anything inappropriate about it.