Virginia Attorney General Herring says he wore blackface at 1980 college party

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia sank deeper into political turmoil Wednesday when another top Democrat — Attorney General Mark Herring — admitted putting on blackface in the 1980s, when he was a college student.

With Gov. Ralph Northam’s career in extreme peril over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook, Herring issued a statement saying he wore brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a rapper during a party as a 19-year-old at the University of Virginia.

Herring, 57, said he was “deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation.”

The attorney general issued the statement after rumors of a blackface photo of Herring had circulated at the Capitol for a day or more. But in his statement, he said nothing about the existence of such a photo.

The disclosure further roils the top levels of Virginia government. Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would be next in line if Northam resigned, was confronted with uncorroborated allegations of sexual misconduct earlier this week. He denied the accusations, calling them a political smear.

Herring would be next in line to be governor after Fairfax.

In his statement, Herring said he and two friends dressed up to look like rappers they listened to, including Kurtis Blow, admitting: “It sounds ridiculous even now writing it.”

“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,” he said.

But he also said: “This conduct is in no way reflective of the man I have become in the nearly 40 years since.

Herring, who plans to run for governor in 2021, is among those who have urged Northam to resign after the discovery of a photo on Northam’s yearbook profile page of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.

Last Friday, Herring condemned that photo as “indefensible” and said it is “no longer possible” for Northam to lead the state.

Northam admitted at first that he was in the photo without saying which costume he was wearing. A day later, he denied he was in the picture. But he acknowledged he once used shoe polish to blacken his face and look like Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.

Asked if Herring should resign, Democratic state Del. Delores McQuinn, an African-American, did not answer directly.

“We are going to govern — that’s what our constituents want us to do,” she said.

Herring spent most of his life in Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County, where he practiced law after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Virginia and his law degree from the University of Richmond.

He served as a county supervisor and a state senator before getting elected attorney general in 2013 by a mere 165 votes out of more than 2.2 million ballots cast. He won re-election by a more comfortable margin in 2017.

In 2006, as a state senator, he supported a Virginia constitutional amendment that outlawed gay marriage. But as term as attorney general, Herring made national headlines for his efforts to overturn Virginia’s ban on gay marriage.

Shortly after taking office, Herring said he would no longer defend the state in a federal lawsuit that challenged the state’s ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional.

“It’s time for the commonwealth to be on the right side of history and the right side of the law,” he said at the time.

A federal judge overturned the state’s gay-marriage ban, and cited Herring’s opposition to the ban as a “compelling” factor in her decision. Virginia court clerks began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in October 2014, nearly a full year before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling allowing gay marriage nationwide.

Below is 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.”

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