Virginia governor says he "overreacted" with initial apology for racist photo

Virginia governor responds to racist photo

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam says he's "not going anywhere" in spite of a racist photo printed in his medical school yearbook. The Democratic lawmaker admitted to "CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King he "overreacted" when he initially apologized for appearing in the photograph of two men – one wearing blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume – on his 1984 yearbook page.

"When you're in a state of shock like I was, we don't always think as clearly as we should. I will tell you that later that night I had a chance to step back, take a deep breath, look at the picture and said, 'This is not me in the picture,'" Northam said. "And I also had a number of friends and classmates from medical school that called and said Ralph that is not you and that was comforting as well."

"But governor, that's a hell of an overreaction for something that is so sensitive and so offensive and so explosive to take responsibility without really knowing for 100 percent that that's me," King said.

"Yes, again, when I stepped back and looked at it, I just said, I know it's not me in the Klan outfit. And I started looking in a picture of the individual with blackface. I said that's not me either. And that's why I felt so strongly about going in front of the camera on Saturday and clarifying," Northam said.

But instead of clarifying at a press conference nine days ago, he raised more questions. He changed his response saying he's not either of the people in the photo, but he admitted to wearing shoe polish to darken his face impersonating Michael Jackson for a dance competition. 

When the picture surfaced earlier this month, Northam said it was the first time he had seen it.

"How can that be? It's on your yearbook page, governor," King said.
 
"Well, I was shocked to see it. And I really believe that the fact that if you look at the unpreparedness of me to react to this, both on Friday night and Saturday, that really confirms that this is the first time," Northam said.

Gov. Ralph Northam says he can take Virginia to the "next level" amid controversy

He now said this is a teaching moment for himself and the country.

"I was born in white privilege and that has implications to it," Northam said, adding, "I didn't realize really the powerful implications of that. And again talking to a lot of friends, that has come crystal clear to me this week. I have also learned why the use of blackface is so offensive and yes, I knew it in the past. But reality has really set in."

A Washington Post poll this weekend shows Virginians are split on whether he should stay in office, but more than half of black Virginians do not think he needs to step down. 

20190210-cru-ctm-7313.jpg
"CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King interviews Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, VA Sunday February 10, 2019. Photo: Chris Usher/CBS © 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All rights reserved. Chris Usher

Transcript of what aired on "CBS This Morning":

GAYLE KING: What have you learned that you didn't know before?
 
GOV. RALPH NORTHAM: Well, several things, starting with I was born in white privilege and that has implications to it… It is much different the way a white person such as myself is treated in this country versus—
 
GAYLE KING: Did you not know that you were born into white privilege?
 
GOV. NORTHAM: I knew I was, Ms. King, but I didn't realize really the powerful implications of that. And again talking to a lot of friends, that has come crystal clear to me this week. I have also learned why the use of blackface is so offensive and yes, I knew it in the past. But reality has really set in.
 
GAYLE KING: But governor, it's hard for people listening to you, an educated man, at the age of 59 to say that you're just learning about the history of it. You didn't know the history and know that it was offensive before?
 
GOV. NORTHAM: I think we're all on a learning curve and certainly Ms. King, I am not the same person now at age 59 that I was back in my early 20s.
 
GAYLE KING: But your early 20s were — was 1984, not 1964.
 
GOV. NORTHAM: That's right. Yes.
 
GAYLE KING: So you would think in 1984 that this was certainly a problem back then.

GOV. NORTHAM: I don't think there's any question that there are today and there were then when I was in my early 20s racial insensitivities. I think there still unconscious attitudes that, yes, we are aware of these things but we don't realize sometime especially as a white person how impactful, how offensive they are. And again, I've still got a lot to learn, but this has been a week that has been very eye opening for me.
 
GAYLE KING: Did you have black friends growing up?
 
GOV. NORTHAM: I did. I grew up on the eastern shore in a very rural area. When I was in the fifth grade, schools were desegregated… So from the sixth grade through the 12th grade, I was in integrated schools and yes, so I grew up in that environment.
 
GAYLE KING: See that's—that—which makes it even harder for us to understand. You had black friends. You grew up with black people. So it would seem that you would be more sensitive and more aware of that.
 
GOV. NORTHAM: I don't have any excuses for what I did in my early life but I can just tell you that I have learned. I have a lot more to learn. I'm a better person and here as I sit as a 59-year-old man governing the Commonwealth of Virginia. This is really an opportunity, I believe, to make awareness of this issue, to really have a frank dialogue and discussion about race and equity in this country.
 
GAYLE KING: Let's go back to the picture and I know you've addressed it but it still raises so many questions for people.
 
GOV. NORTHAM: Absolutely.
 
GAYLE KING: Why do you think it came out now?
 
GOV. NORTHAM: I don't know… this is really the first time I have ever seen that picture. And I would tell you—
 
GAYLE KING: How can that be? It's on your yearbook page, governor.
 
GOV. NORTHAM: Well, I was shocked to see it. And I really believe that the fact that if you look at the unpreparedness of me to react to this, both on Friday night and Saturday, that really confirms that this is the first time.
 
GAYLE KING: Well, let me ask you this. Are those your pants? Those pants are very distinct. Do you have a pair of pants that look like that?
 
GOV. NORTHAM: I have never had any pants like that.
 
GAYLE KING: You first said that it was—well, first you said you wouldn't say which one was you. That was the first thing, and then you said— then you came and apologize for being in the picture. Why would you apologize for something that horrific if you're not 100 percent sure that it's you?
 
GOV. NORTHAM: Well, I definitely overreacted. And again...
 
GAYLE KING: But why did you do that?
 
GOV. NORTHAM: Well, when you're in a state of shock like I was, we don't always think as clearly as we should. I will tell you that later that night I had a chance to step back, take a deep breath, look at the picture and said, "This is not me in the picture." And I also had a number of friends and classmates from medical school that called and said Ralph that is not you and that was comforting as well.
 
GAYLE KING: But governor, that's a hell of an overreaction for something that is so sensitive and so offensive and so explosive to take responsibility without really knowing for 100 percent that that's me.
 
GOV. NORTHAM: Yes, again, when I stepped back and looked at it, I just said, I know it's not me in the Klan outfit. And I started looking in a picture of the individual with blackface. I said that's not me either. And that's why I felt so strongly about going in front of the camera on Saturday and clarifying.
 
But instead of clarifying at a press conference nine days ago, he raised more questions, admitting to wearing shoe polish to darken his face impersonating Michael Jackson for a dance competition. 

(FROM PRESS CONFERENCE)
Question: Are you still able to moonwalk?
Answer: Uh. (Off cam: Inappropriate circumstances) My wife says, inappropriate circumstances.

GAYLE KING: For many of us watching, it look like you were about to actually demonstrate the moonwalk… Were you thinking about showing off your moonwalking skills?
 
GOV. NORTHAM: No, because I don't have those at age 59, but I will tell you, Gayle, I regret that. This is a serious moment. And whether it was a nervous laugh or whatever, it was inappropriate.
 
GAYLE KING: So you weren't thinking about doing it when you looked over at that the floor you were not thinking about doing a walk.
 
GOV. RALPH NORTHAM: No.
 
GAYLE KING: Many people credit Pam. Pam, your lovely wife for stepping in.
 
GOV. NORTHAM: Well let me just tell you—
 
GAYLE KING: Another reason to be nicer on Valentine's Day for you, sir.
 
GOV NORTHAM: Gayle, let me just tell you that as we say, I married way up and I would not be sitting here having this conversation if it wasn't for my wife of 33 years.
 
GAYLE KING: What do you say to people that are looking at this story, if you do stay in office, which you say you are, someone that commits a racist offense and says, "Well, the governor did it. And he—and he's okay?" Do you think it sends a message that— that this isn't being taken seriously, if you stay in office, when so many people, at the highest levels, want you to step down?
 
GOV. NORTHAM: You know, I'm not here to make any excuses. But I will tell you that— the man that you're looking at right now — at age 59, who has given over 35 years of service to the United States Army, I have taken care of thousands of sick children and have had over 12 years of public service to the Commonwealth of Virginia, the man you're looking at and talking to right now is not who I was in my early 20s. I have learned. I admit to my mistakes. And I'm gonna improve my life and do better and be in a position where I can help other people. That's why I do what I do, Gayle. Every morning I get up. If I feel like I'm helping people, then that makes me content.