What to Know
- Virginia's attorney general said Wednesday that as a college student he once wore blackface as he dressed as a rapper.
- His admission follows the publication of a racist photo in the governor's yearbook, and a sex assault claim against the governor's deputy.
- A group affiliated with rapper Kurtis Blow, who Herring referenced, called Herring a "cultural tourist."
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring says he used blackface at a college party in 1980, in the latest controversy to hit Democrats elected to the state's highest offices.
Herring is second in the line of succession for the governorship. His admission comes after the publication of a racist photo in the governor's yearbook and a sexual assault accusation against the lieutenant governor.
The attorney general released a statement Wednesday saying he wore blackface and a wig as a costume decades ago.
Herring said that as a 19-year-old college student, he and his friends dressed like rappers they listened to at the time, including Kurtis Blow, and prepared to perform a song.
"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's statement said.
"This was a onetime occurrence and I accept full responsibility for my conduct," he continued. (Read his full statement below.)
An organization affiliated with Blow, the rapper, issued its own statement.
"Hip hop culture and rap music is a not a cultural phenomenon to be parodied or appropriated; it is a way of life for millions of people worldwide," said a representative of the Univeral Hip Hop Museum, of which Blow is the chairman.
"Since you chose to become a 'cultural tourist' momentarily in your misbegotten youth, you now have a unique opportunity to give some thing back to the culture you had a passing interest in some 40 odd years ago," the statement continued. "Instead of making a pithy mea culpa, make a donation to the Universal Hip Hop Museum."
The museum is slated to open in the Bronx.
Virginia politics were rattled starting Friday when a photo surfaced from Northam's 1984 medical school yearbook page showing one person in blackface and another in a KKK robe and hood. Northam initially apologized for appearing in the photo; he later claimed he wasn't shown, but did say he once wore blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a dance contest.
Prominent figures from the left and right, including the chairman of the State Republican Party and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, called for Northam to step down and let Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax take his seat.
But in the following days, Fairfax's own past came under intense scrutiny. Vanessa Tyson, a political science professor on leave from Scripps College in California, came forward and accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Fairfax, a married, 39-year-old father of two, said Monday that when he was 25, he had a "100 percent consensual" encounter in a hotel room with a woman he met at the convention. He wasn't married at the time.
According to The Washington Post, Tyson described an encounter that began consensually and ended with a forced sexual act.
NBC News reported Wednesday, citing two sources, that Fairfax used profane language about his accuser in a private meeting Monday night.
Fairfax said in a statement Wednesday that "in my remarks on Monday, I think you could hear how emotional dealing with an allegation that I know is not true has been for me." Fairfax's chief of staff and policy director conceded to NBC News that he used a profanity to refer to the situation but disputed that he directed any profanity to Tyson.
Tyson's allegation against Fairfax was first published by the conservative blog Big League Politics, the same site that published the racist photo from Northam's yearbook.
The blog published an image of a Facebook post by Tyson. She said a man who sexually assaulted her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention won statewide office in 2017 and "seems increasingly likely" to get a "very big promotion." She did not, in that post, name Fairfax as the perpetrator.
Herring's full statement:
"The very bright light that is shining on Virginia right now is sparking a painful but, I think we all hope, important conversation. The stakes are high, and our spirits are low.
"I am sure we all have done things at one time or another in our lives that show poor judgment, and worse yet, have caused some level of pain to others. I have a glaring example from my past that I have thought about with deep regret in the many years since, and certainly each time I took a step forward in public service, realizing that my goals and this memory could someday collide and cause pain for people I care about, those who stood with me in the many years since, or those who I hoped to serve while in office.
"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. 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.
"This was a onetime occurrence and I accept full responsibility for my conduct.
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. It was really a minimization of both people of color, and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then.
"Although the shame of that moment has haunted me for decades, and though my disclosure of it now pains me immensely, what I am feeling in no way compares to the betrayal, the shock, and the deep pain that Virginians of color may be feeling. Where they have deserved to feel heard, respected, understood, and honestly represented, I fear my actions have contributed to them being forced to revisit and feel a historical pain that has never been allowed to become history.
"This conduct is in no way reflective of the man I have become in the nearly 40 years since.
"As a senator and as attorney general, I have felt an obligation to not just acknowledge but work affirmatively to address the racial inequities and systemic racism that we know exist in our criminal justice system, in our election processes, and in other institutions of power. I have long supported efforts to empower communities of color by fighting for access to healthcare, making it easier and simpler to vote, and twice defended the historic re-enfranchisement of former felons before the Supreme Court of Virginia. I have launched efforts to make our criminal justice system more just, fair, and equal by addressing implicit bias in law enforcement, establishing Virginia’s first-ever program to improve re-entry programs in local jails, and pushing efforts to reform the use of cash bail. And I have tried to combat the rise in hate crimes and white supremacist violence that is plaguing our Commonwealth and our country.
"That I have contributed to the pain Virginians have felt this week is the greatest shame I have ever felt. Forgiveness in instances like these is a complicated process, one that necessarily cannot and should not be decided by anyone but those directly affected by the transgressor, should forgiveness be possible or appropriate at all. In the days ahead, honest conversations and discussions will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve as attorney general, but no matter where we go from here, I will say that from the bottom of my heart, I am deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation."
Stay with News4 for more on this developing story.