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Ralph Northam’s Photo Makes My Blood Boil

Monday, February 4th, 2019

Ralph Northam inauguration – creative commons

This Black History month marks 400 years since Blacks were forcibly brought to America. It started  with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam defending a 1984 racist black face photo standing next to a KKK member in his medical school yearbook page. As an African American, this photo makes my blood boil.

Virginia Governor Northam is the latest white person to be caught in a racist compromising position. When Northam first spoke about his predicament, he manned up. He stated that the photo was “clearly racist and offensive.” But then he flip- flopped to his current position—denying that he is in the photo. That position evolved apparently as many politicians called for his resignation.

To those many persons who are clueless about whites in black face, I suggest that you use the month of February to read up on it. White actors and musicians during the time of slavery and up to an including into the 1900’s would cover their faces in black dye and create stereotypical and racist portrayals of slaves and African Americans. The representations would show blacks as being inferior to whites, being sub- intelligent with a low IQ and being less than human and childlike. The Black face actors and musicians played parts and sang in ways to dehumanize and ridicule African Americans, making them the butt of jokes for white audiences. These portrayals were funny to whites but degrading to African Americans.

In Northam’s case, the 1984 yearbook photo was the same portrayal as earlier Black face actors. It was likely humorous to his white friends but appalling and disgusting to African Americans. Northam’s depiction goes even farther. It shows a white man in Black face standing next to a KKK member. How did he ever think that was humorous and not racist? Even if Northam was not well versed on Black history, the photo speaks volumes of what he really thought about African Americans over 30 years ago. The only thing possibly worse would have been if the KKK person was holding a noose.

Many people have something in their past that they regret doing. The problem with Northam is he failed to acknowledge the photo much earlier in his career, apologize for it and ask for forgiveness—like before he ran for Governor. It makes me think what else is Northam hiding. Northam has alluded to the fact that other photos may come up.

As for those persons who believe that 30 years ago is time enough for folks to change. I agree. However, I do not agree with persons who get caught holding the racist cookie 30 years later and only then saying—that was back then.

Ralph Northam should not get a pass on this one. And yes, he along with many others like him in both political parties should resign. Northam is the latest white politician caught in a racist web. Nearly every state and national political ally and the University of Virginia President James Ryan have asked for Northam’s resignation. The one politician supporting Northam is former Virginia congressman Jim Moran.

If Northam’s photo involved something  of a serious nature involving sexual assault, I doubt if there would be much debate about his resignation. And he may have already resigned. Former Senator Al Franken resigned over a photo implying that he forcibly kissed a woman on an airplane while she was asleep.  The photo in Franken’s case was nowhere nearly as offensive as the Northam black face and KKK photo. While I don’t believe the photo warranted Franke’s resignation, he became a casualty of the MeToo movement.

The nature of Northam’s photo is racism. The offensive nature and outcomes of the two—race and sex, should be equal. Anything involving racism always carries a higher burden in America—even 400 years after the first Africans arrived.

Being an effective leader means being able to lead. It will be difficult if not impossible for Northam to lead the Commonwealth of Virginia after this debacle. The clock ticks. It’s only a matter of time before Northam resigns.

Washington, D.C. based Debbie Hines is an attorney and former prosecutor.

2015 DC/MD/VA Legal Stories to Watch

Friday, January 2nd, 2015
Debbie Hines at the Capitol

Debbie Hines at the Capitol

In 2015, there will  be several interesting local DC/MD/VA legal stories to watch unfold starting this week.

On Tuesday,  January 6, Former Republican VA Governor Robert (“Bob”) McDonnell is scheduled to be sentenced on his  11 convictions for corruption in office.   His wife, Maureen is scheduled to be sentenced later in February.  And just as the case played out in the courtroom, it continued with the same theme after the trial. The defense of Bob McDonnell continued to throw wife Maureen McDonnell under the bus as the culprit for his demise.    Daughters Jeanine McDonnell Zubowsky and  Cailin McDonnell Young wrote letters  to the judge saying in essence that their mother was to blame for everything.  And dad, Bob McDonnell, never wished for any lavish items.   The defense has requested three years of community service, in lieu of  any jail time. McDonnell would be lucky to get as little as three years of jail. The prosecutors are seeking a ten year prison term. Over 400 letters of support have been written on behalf of McDonnell and presented to Judge James Spencer.  McDonnell is the first Governor in the Commonwealth of Virginia to be tried and convicted of a crime.  On his 11 counts, the sentencing guidelines range is a little over 10 years to a little under 13 years.  Most judges sentence within the guidelines range determined by the U.S. Office of Probation.  However, a judge can sentence more or less time. Regardless of the outcome, the case will be appealed.


One of the biggest changes in DC laws was the election of its first Attorney General. Karl Racine was elected in November as DC’s first elected Attorney General- a move that is consistent with 46 other states.  As newly elected Attorney General, Racine says  he intends to go before the DC Council to expand the powers of the Attorney General.  He also seeks to change the way that youth are shackled in Superior Court which is at odds with Chief Judge Satterfield.  A showdown between DC and Congress appears to be brewing over DC’s new marijuana law. Although DC  voters approved the marijuana law, (“Initiative 71”), at the polls, which makes small amounts of  less than one ounce of marijuana subject to non-criminal penalties, Congress has added a rider  in the spending bill to block the enactment of the law. Both Karl Racine and Congresswoman  Eleanor Holmes Norton disagree that Congress can nullify the law.




What started as a missing U VA student, in the case of Hannah Graham case, has turned into 3  cases of possible sexual assaults and two murders.  Jesse Matthews has now been charged in the death of Hannah Graham and the sexual assault, attempted murder and kidnapping  of an unidentified woman a decade ago in 2005.   A third case, Morgan Harrington, has been linked  to Matthews through DNA but without any legal action.  Two cases and two jurisdictions are waiting for Mr. Matthews.  Matthews will be first tried in Fairfax County on  March 9, 2015  for the sexual assault of a women in 2005 who was walking home from a grocery store when attacked.  The unidentified woman is out of the country but cooperating and expected to testify. The trial is expected to last 2 weeks.   The case involving Hannah Graham in Albermarle County has been set for a preliminary hearing after the Fairfax trial in late March.


Alexandria, VA is rarely known for murders. And yet in the case of Charles Severance, the murders of three individuals, Ruthanne Lodato, Ron Kirby and Nancy Dunning are alleged to have occurred at the hands of Severance.   In the Severance case, it will be interesting to see if the defense invokes a criminal insanity defense.   We will have to wait until the trial date of October 5, 2015 to see how the case unfolds in court.  Surprisingly, the three cases will be tried together.  Separate cases can be tried together occurring in the same jurisdiction where a pattern and practice is similar.  Each case still stands on its own in terms of guilt or innocence based on the facts.  But the cases are strengthened from a prosecutor’s standpoint by trying them together.


An interesting Supreme Court case heard in early December, 2014  has ties to the Maryland area. Peggy Young, of Lorton, VA, became pregnant in 2006 while working as a driver for UPS in Landover, Maryland.  On doctor’s orders, she requested reduced pounds to lift due to her pregnancy. Typically, light duty is reserved for workers who are injured. Young’s request was turned down and she had to take unpaid leave without medical benefits.  She argued to the court that that sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of “pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions” and federal law directs employers to treat pregnant employees the same “as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”  If successful before the Supreme Court, her case will have a huge impact on how employers treat pregnant employees.  An opinion will likely be heard in the spring.


There will plenty legal stories to cover in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area in 2015.  Stay tuned here for updates.


Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor who addresses issues on race and gender in the law.