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Virginia governor Ralph Northam now denies appearance in racist photo, refuses to resign

File photo of Virginia governor Ralph Northam. Photograph:( Reuters )

AFP Washington, USA Feb 03, 2019, 06.40 AM (IST)

Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of the US state of Virginia, changed his story Saturday about appearing in a racist 1984 yearbook photo and insisted he will not resign from office.

Northam held a press conference to say that he, in fact, was not one of the men in a photo from his university yearbook depicting two people -- one in blackface, the other dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.

"In the hours since I made my statement yesterday, I reflected with my family and classmates from the time and affirmed my conclusion that I am not the person in that photo," he told reporters, a day after saying he had appeared in the picture without specifying which of the individuals he was.

Northam added that while he had not appeared in the photo, "many actions that we rightfully recognize as abhorrent today were commonplace" and he was not surprised such material made its way to the yearbook.

He said he did not know why it appeared on his page, adding, "I had nothing to do with the preparation of the yearbook, nor did I buy one. 

"And so this was the first time -- yesterday evening was the first time I saw this photo. It was shocking and it was horrific."

The governor, who began his four-year term in 2018, did admit however that he had applied shoe polish on his face on at least one occasion --  to imitate Michael Jackson during a dance contest held that same year, which he went on to win.

"I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that," he said.

On Friday, a website published a photograph from Northam's medical school yearbook "in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive," the governor said in a statement soon after the picture surfaced.

"I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt, that decision caused then and now," Northam said.

The admission prompted calls for him to resign -- including from several Democratic presidential candidates.

"We made the decision to let Governor Northam do the correct thing and resign this morning," the Virginia branch of the Democratic Party said on Twitter Saturday.

"We have gotten word he will not do so this morning."

Senator Cory Booker, an African-American 2020 presidential hopeful, was one of the first big name Democrats to react.

"These images arouse centuries of anger, anguish, and racist violence and they've eroded all confidence in Gov. Northam's ability to lead. We should expect more from our elected officials. He should resign," he tweeted Friday.

California Senator Kamala Harris, another African-American running for president, tweeted that "the stain of racism should have no place in the halls of government."

Other big-name Democrats such as Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren also called for his departure.

Story highlights

Ralph Northam held a press conference to say that he, in fact, was not one of the men in a photo from his university yearbook depicting two people.