Virginia’s Democratic governor has given an extraordinary reason he should stay in his job after a photo apparently showing him wearing blackface went viral this weekend.
Ralph Northam initially apologised for the photo from his medical school yearbook page, which showed a young man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume, before insisting he was not either of the people pictured.
In a bizarre Saturday press conference, he also said he had darkened his face with shoe polish on another occasion, while performing Michael Jackson’s moonwalk in a 1984 dance competition.
With calls for his resignation growing louder on Monday, Mr Northam said he should stay in office, or he would leave as a “racist for life”.
He told a meeting of Cabinet members that the only way he could clear his name was to persuade people it was not him in the yearbook photo and the photo does not represent who he is, a source told CNN.
Many expressed concern about whether he could regain the trust of Virginians, with many Democrats openly calling for his resignation — although none of his Cabinet has threatened to resign.
His deputy Justin Fairfax, who would become the only black governor in the US if Mr Northam steps down, said in a statement: “I have worked closely with Ralph Northam over many years. He has been a friend to me and has treated my family and me with hospitality and respect. While his career has been marked by service to children, soldiers and constituents, I cannot condone the actions from his past that, at the very least, suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping, and intimidation.”
Mr Northam spent the weekend fighting to hold on to his position as governor after the publication of the shocking photo from his college yearbook overshadowed the first day of Black History Month on Friday.
Photos from his Virginia Military Institute yearbook were made public and showed one of his nicknames in college was “Coonman”. He said only two people had ever called him that, and he did not know why.
The images were circulated on the same day Senator Cory Booker announced his bid to become the nation’s second black president, underscoring the polarisation of American politics right now.
Insiders said it signalled a day of reckoning for the nation over race relations, after a string of bombshell revelations involving senior politicians from both sides of politics.
Donald Trump lashed Mr Northam over the “terrible” photo, but Democrats hit back over the President’s history of inflammatory comments on migrants, Mexicans and violence against black people.
“This country hasn’t dealt well with issues of race. We have a president who’s a racist,” said Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press.
When host Chuck Todd pressed Mr Brown over whether he believed Mr Trump was racist “in his heart”, Mr Brown pointed to the President’s past claims that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US and allegations he discriminated against black people as a real estate owner.
“I don’t know what ‘in his heart’ means,” said Mr Brown. “I know he built his political career knowing what he was doing in questioning the legitimacy and the birthplace of the president of the United States.”
Race rows have infected every corner of US politics since Mr Trump’s appointment, and the drama now seems to have reached a peak. The Washington Post said “a #MeToo moment on race has arrived”.
The furore over Mr Northam’s photo follows a flood of race rows that show the US struggling against its own chequered history.
Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel resigned in January, less than a month into his role, when a 2005 photo of him dressed as a Hurricane Katrina victim in blackface at a Halloween party was circulated. “There’s nothing I can say,” he said.
Just two weeks earlier, House Republican leaders moved to strip Steve King of his committee assignments after he questioned why the phrases “white nationalist” and “white supremacy” were considered offensive.
“All people are created equal in America, and we want to take a very strong stance about that,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Mr King has a history of racist comments, describing the murders of Americans at the hands of undocumented immigrants as “a slow-motion Holocaust” in 2016 and proposing an electric wire on top of the concrete border wall, adding: “We do that with livestock all the time.”
In 2013, he said of so-called “Dreamers” — young migrants with temporary protected status: “For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
When “MAGA teen” Nick Sandmann was filmed in a confrontation with a Native American elder last month, the internet erupted in a furious argument over whether the incident had racist undertones. During the toxic storm of accusations, the Trump-supporting teenager’s high school was brought into the row when photos that appeared to show students in blackface were circulated.
During the midterm elections, Mississippi senate candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith was attacked for joking about public hangings in a state with a history of lynchings. It then emerged the Republican had attended a segregation academy and appeared in photos on Facebook in 2014 wearing a Confederate hat. Ms Hyde-Smith beat Democrat Mike Espy, who would have become the state’s first African-American senator since Reconstruction.
Mr Trump defended Ms Hyde-Smith and said she was needed in Washington. “It was just sort of said in jest,” he said. “She’s a tremendous woman, and it’s a shame that she has to go through this.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was elected after saying on Fox News voters would “monkey this up” by choosing his Democratic black opponent, Andrew Gillum. The comment was widely decried as racist and elicited a formal rebuke from Fox.
A local newspaper discovered a photo of state senate candidate Hal Patton, mayor of Edwardsville, Illinois, wearing blackface. He said the photo was taken at least 10 years earlier at a Halloween party, adding he has “friends from every race and every country”.
He lost the race for a state senate seat but continues to serve as mayor. “There was never any intention for it to be an act of racism or racial commentary … at the time, Run DMC and others were rappers. That was the look,” he said. “Looking back, it was a bad choice for an outfit. I regret it and apologise to those it offends.”
A college party photo found on Facebook showed South Carolina Republican candidate Brant Tomlinson dressed as a Jamaican bobsledder in blackface, wearing a shirt with the Jamaican flag duct-taped to it. “I was asked recently, did I think it was funny, doing this? And I looked back, and I didn’t,” he said.
Mr Tomlinson took the photo down after backlash from the community but not before it had been shared hundreds of times. He did not win his election to a county seat.
In early 2017, a photo of Louisiana House of Representatives candidate Robbie Gatti dressed as Tiger Woods and wearing blackface emerged. The Republican ordained minister — who lost a run-off election against fellow Republican Raymond Crews — said the photo had been taken 15 years earlier at a church festival.
“Tiger Woods was at the height of his popularity, as a world champion, and that was who I was dressed as,” he said. “My opponents have taken a good night at church and turned it into negative, political mud.”
In February 2013, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind at first defended his decision to dress in an Afro wig, orange jersey, sunglasses and blackface for the Jewish holiday of Purim.
The Democrat wrote on his blog that “this is political correctness to the absurd”.
After his own party and the Anti-Defamation League denounced his actions, he apologised. “In hindsight, I should have picked something else,” he said. “It never crossed my mind for a split second that I was doing something wrong.”
After 36 years in office, Mr Hikind announced he would not run for re-election, leaving his post at the end of last year.
Princeton University professor Rhae Lynn Barnes, who has spent a decade studying blackface composites from yearbooks and fraternities and analysing more than 10,000 blackface plays at Harvard, told the Post Mr Northam’s racist photo showed the “centrality of amateur blackface minstrelsy to American cultural life and universities”.
The tensions within the US have never been so striking or flammable. In their pushback against Mr Northam, the Democrats have made it clear tolerance of racism is over.
The party’s progressive bloc, of which Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is perhaps the most visible, includes two Muslim women — one of whom was unafraid to use an expletive as she called to impeach Mr Trump.
The field of Democrats running for president is one of the most diverse in history, with black, Hispanic, Asian-American and gay candidates. Tomorrow, Stacey Abrams — the African-American candidate who lost the race for Georgia governor — will give the Democrat response to Mr Trump’s State of the Nation speech.
The weeding out of the racism that underpins the history of the United States has begun in earnest. It will not be pretty.