Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) admitted on Wednesday to wearing blackface in 1980.
Herring's admission comes less than a week after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) faced questions and calls for his resignation over a racially offensive photo in his medical school yearbook.
On Wednesday, Herring, a Loudoun County resident and former county supervisor, said as a 19-year-old undergraduate in college, some of his friends dressed like rappers — inspired by hip hop artist Kurtis Blow — wearing wigs and brown makeup. He was among them.
"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,” Herring said in a prepared statement.
The attorney general continued, “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."
Herring said he is "deeply, deeply sorry" and hopes “in the days ahead, honest conversations and discussions will make it clear whether [he] can or should continue to serve as attorney general."
Herring announced in late 2018 that he plans to seek the governor's mansion in 2021.
Governor Northam initially apologized for being in the photo following its widespread release on Feb. 1, but the next day he said he does not believe it's him in the image. Northam has resisted calls from leaders of his own party to resign. The photo in question, which shows one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe, appeared on Northam’s 1984 yearbook page from Eastern Virginia Medical School.
The medical school announced on Tuesday an independent investigation is underway pertaining to the photo in the yearbook.
In addition to the Northam photo controversy, Virginia's Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) is vehemently denying an unsubstantiated claim of sexual abuse perpetrated by him. Fairfax has said the sexual encounter, which happened in 2004, was consensual.
Fairfax would assume the governorship should Northam resign. Herring would be the next in line following Fairfax.
Loudoun County NAACP President Michelle Thomas said her organization is not seeking the attorney general’s resignation but “rather atonement, a measurable path to justice, equality, healing and racial reconciliation.”
Thomas said she believes Herring is "perfectly positioned for leading the pathway out of the darkness of racism into the light of unity."
Thomas said she is still numb to all the news out of Richmond over the past week.
“A couple of days later to find out that your beloved attorney general has participated in racist activity—you’re still numb,” Thomas said. “The governor hasn’t stepped down. He’s unrepentant. There’s almost no words for the callousness and lack of respect of the people he hurt—the African-American community — and so when this comes along with Mark, you ask, ‘How much do we not want to know about our elected officials?’”
On Tuesday, Herring stepped down from his position as co-chairman of Democratic Attorneys General Association. DAGA Executive Director Sean Rankin said the association accepted his offer.
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."