Northam's Word Choice Gets Him Deeper Into Hot Water

Embattled Virginia governor refers to slaves as 'indentured servants'
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 11, 2019 3:08 PM CST
Embattled Governor Uses Term 'Indentured Servants,' to Uproar
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam talks during an interview at the Governor's Mansion, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 in Richmond, Va.   (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via AP)

Virginia's already-embattled governor may have stepped in it Monday: In an interview with CBS This Morning, Ralph Northam, embroiled in a blackface scandal, started things off by saying:

  • "Well it has been a difficult week. And you know if you look at Virginia's history we are now at the 400-year anniversary—just 90 miles from here in 1619 the first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores in Old Point Comfort, what we call now Fort Monroe, and while—"
At that point Gayle King, who had started things off by simply asking Northam where he wanted to begin, interrupted him to say, "Also known as slavery." "Yes," Northam replied, continuing, "And while we have made a lot of progress in Virginia—slavery has ended. Schools have been desegregated. We have ended the Jim Crow laws, easier access to voting—it is abundantly clear that we still have a lot of work to do and I really think this week raised a level of awareness in the Commonwealth and in this country that we haven't seen certainly in my lifetime." Read on for criticism of his comments, more from his interview, plus further developments in the state, where the second and third in line for the governorship are facing scandals of their own:

  • Critics and supporters: USA Today rounds up reactions to the "indentured servants" comment, many of which are critical, accusing Northam of using a euphemism for slavery. But some backed him up: "First black Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 were indentured servants," author Kurt Eichenwald tweeted. "There were no laws for slavery in VA til 1661. The evolution from IS to slavery is essential to understand depth of evil of slavery."
  • Northam's response: After criticism started rolling in, Northam told CBS it was actually a historian at Fort Monroe who corrected him when he referred to the first Africans brought to Virginia as "enslaved." USAT notes that historians are divided on which term is more accurate. "The fact is, I’m still learning and committed to getting it right," Northam's statement concludes.
  • Northam still won't resign: In his interview with King, Northam went on to again say he won't step down as governor. "Right now, Virginia needs someone that can heal," he said. "There's no better person to do that than a doctor. Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that's why I'm not going anywhere. I have learned from this. I have a lot more to learn."
  • On the subject of his lieutenant governor: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has been accused of sexual assault by two women, and Northam told King their allegations must be taken seriously. He said he supports an investigation, which Fairfax himself has also called for, and that "if these accusations are determined to be true, I don't think he's going to have any other option but to resign." More on Fairfax, plus the third in line to the governorship, on the next page.

  • Fairfax impeachment? A Virginia state legislator who planned to start impeachment proceedings against Fairfax is holding off. Delegate Patrick A. Hope, a Democrat, changed his mind after what the New York Times refers to as a "heated" Sunday night conference call among House Democrats. Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus are calling for the accusations against Fairfax to be investigated in a legal setting, not a political one. Hope said he's "open to other avenues" for investigation, but is also open to impeachment proceedings if necessary.
  • The latest from Fairfax: Monday morning, he again told reporters he has "called for an independent investigation" and is "still very confident in the truth." He has no plans to step down as lieutenant governor, but the Huffington Post notes that the law firm that employs him has placed him on leave while an external investigation into the accusations takes place.
  • Northam on why he apologized: Northam initially apologized over the 1984 yearbook page from Eastern Virginia Medical School featuring a man in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe, then later said he doesn't think he's in that photo but had once donned blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume. Asked by King why he apologized for a photo he wasn't in, Northam said, "When you're in a state of shock like I was, we don't always think as clearly as we should. I will tell you that later that night I had a chance to step back, take a deep breath, look at the picture and said, 'This is not me in the picture.'"
  • On the subject of his attorney general: Asked by King about Mark Herring, who has admitted to donning blackface while he was in college, Northam said, "We have all grown. I don't know what the attorney general was thinking, what his perception was of race, of—of the use of blackface back then. But I can tell you that I am sure, just like me, he has grown. He has served Virginia well and he and I and Justin, all three of us have fought for equality. And so again I regret that our attorney general is in this position but [whether to resign] is a decision that he's going to need to make."
(More Virginia stories.)

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