Virginia Democrats in crisis over new blackface scandal

Chris Lefkow
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Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has admitted to wearing blackface while attending a party in college in the 1980s

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has admitted to wearing blackface while attending a party in college in the 1980s (AFP Photo/WIN MCNAMEE)

Washington (AFP) - A political crisis deepened in Virginia on Wednesday after the attorney general of the eastern US state admitted he wore blackface to a 1980 college party to impersonate a rapper.

Attorney general Mark Herring is second in line for the governorship of the state, where the Democratic governor and lieutenant governor are already embroiled in scandal.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has been facing calls for his resignation since a 1984 yearbook surfaced last week that features a racist photo on a page dedicated to him.

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax has been accused by a woman of sexual assault -- an allegation he denies, saying it had been a "100 percent consensual" encounter.

His troubles worsened on Wednesday as the woman went public with a detailed version of the 2004 encounter at a Boston hotel.

Like Northam and Fairfax, Herring is a Democrat. The next in line for the governorship is the Republican speaker of the state House of Delegates.

Herring, 57, who has served as attorney general since 2014, apologized for what he described as "callous and inexcusable lack of awareness."

"I am deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation," he said.

"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.

"But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes -- and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspective of others -- we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup," he said.

Herring described his actions as a "minimization" of people of color, and of America's fraught racial history, which he says he was well aware of at the time.

"This conduct is in no way reflective of the man I have become in the nearly 40 years since," he said.

"In the days ahead, honest conversations and discussions will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve as attorney general."

- 'Shocking and horrific' -

Northam, the governor, has been fighting for his political survival since the emergence of the university yearbook photo featuring two figures standing together -- one in blackface, the other dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.

Blackface is makeup traditionally used by non-black performers to mock African Americans and was prevalent in minstrel shows in the 19th century.

Northam, 59, described the picture as "shocking and horrific" and while initially suggesting he was depicted later denied that he was either of the people in the photo.

But the governor did admit that he had once applied shoe polish on his face -- to imitate Michael Jackson during a 1984 dance contest.

Meanwhile, the woman who accused Fairfax, the lieutenant governor, of sexual assault publicly identified herself for the first time on Wednesday and released a statement about the encounter.

Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor at Scripps College in California, said Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him in July 2004 at the Democratic National Convention.

"What began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault," she said. "After the assault, I suffered from both deep humiliation and shame."

Tyson said she did not speak about it for years but was inspired to come forward now by the courage of women involved in the #MeToo movement. She has no political motivations, she added, and is a "proud Democrat."

Fairfax reiterated his denial Wednesday that he had done anything inappropriate.

"Fifteen years ago, when I was an unmarried law student, I had a consensual encounter with the woman who made the allegation," the 39-year-old lieutenant governor said.

"At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions, neither during that encounter, nor during the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past 15 years," he said.