Virginia's attorney general admits wearing blackface in college

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Virginia Attorney General Mark HerringImage source, Getty Images
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Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has acknowledged wearing "brown makeup" to a party, days after the state governor admitting wearing blackface.

The second-in-line to the governor's seat said in a statement on Wednesday that he wore a costume to a party when he was 19 years old at university.

Mr Herring had joined calls for Governor Ralph Northam to quit over a racist photo and blackface scandal.

The lieutenant governor is meanwhile battling a sex assault claim.

All three men are Democrats. If they were to resign over these controversies, Virginia could be led by the Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox.

What exactly has Herring admitted?

On Wednesday the attorney general confessed that he also once used blackface.

Mr Herring said that in 1980, he and his friends donned costumes after "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," he said.

Image source, The Washington Post via Getty Images
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Ralph Northam's page in the 1984 yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School

"That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behaviour could inflict on others."

Mr Herring did not offer to step down and wrote of his "efforts to empower communities of colour" and "to combat the rise in hate crimes and white supremacist violence that is plaguing our Commonwealth and our country".

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On Saturday, Mr Herring joined a chorus of fellow Democrats calling on Mr Northam to resign after an image surfaced from his 1984 medical yearbook page showing a person in blackface, and another in Ku Klux Klan robes.

Mr Northam has denied it was him in the racist photo, but has acknowledged wearing blackface on a separate occasion that year while dressing up as Michael Jackson.

Mr Herring said it was "no longer possible" for Mr Northam to serve as governor.

A Washington Post editorial on Wednesday called on Mr Northam to resign.

The scandals metastasise

Virginia Democrats are running out of top officials not beset by scandal.

With Attorney General Mark Herring's revelation that he, too, once wore blackface, the situation has metastasised from a controversy ensnaring one man - Governor Northam - to an indication of a larger problem.

Cruel, intolerant actions that were once considered acceptable, at least among a certain crowd, are now, decades later, having political consequences.

In her response to the president's State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Stacey Abrams - the black woman who narrowly lost her bid to be Georgia's governor - obliquely addressed the issue.

"We continue to confront racism from our past and in our present, which is why we must hold everyone from the highest offices to our own families accountable for racist words and deeds and call racism what it is, wrong," she said.

Virginians - and Democrats across the US - are now grappling with racist deeds within their own family.

It has thrown the state's leadership into turmoil. Accountability, however, could be harder to realise. The cold political reality is that the more top politicians are touched, the less likely it is any of them will go.

What about the deputy governor?

As the blackface scandal engulfed the governor's mansion, many Democrats said his deputy, Lt Governor Justin Fairfax, should take over.

But since Sunday Mr Fairfax has been denying a woman's claim that he sexually assaulted her 15 years ago.

On Wednesday, Vanessa Tyson came forward to recount the alleged assault in disturbing detail through a statement issued by her lawyers.

Now a California college professor, she says Mr Fairfax forced her to perform a sex act on him during the 2004 Democratic political convention in Boston.

Prof Tyson said he had invited her back to his hotel room during the political jamboree to retrieve some documents.

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Governor Northam: I am not the person in that photo

While in the suite, she says, they kissed. But, her statement adds, "what began as consensual kissing quickly turned into an assault".

"I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual," she said of their encounter.

"After the assault, I suffered from both deep humiliation and shame."

On Wednesday, Mr Fairfax said reading her statement had been "painful", but insisted he was innocent.

His office meanwhile denied an NBC report that he used an expletive-laden outburst in reference to Prof Tyson, during a private meeting on Monday night.

The National Organization for Women has called on Mr Fairfax to resign.

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Image caption,
Justin Fairfax (second left), Ralph Northam (centre) and Mark Herring (second right) in happier times