Northam orders VMI investigation after report of racism experienced by Black cadets

Gov. Ralph Northam is calling for an investigation at the Virginia Military Institute after a report detailing constant racism experienced by Black cadets at the state-run military college.

“Black cadets at VMI have long faced repeated instances of racism on campus, including horrifying new revelations of threats about lynching, vicious attacks on social media, and even a professor who spoke fondly of her family’s history in the Ku Klux Klan,” a letter addressed to VMI President John W. Boland and the school’s board said.

The letter was signed by Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Attorney General Mark Herring, Legislative Black Caucus Chair Lamont Bagby and several members of the General Assembly.

The investigation will be directed by an independent, third-party that will review the school’s culture, policies, practices and equity in disciplinary procedures. It will report directly to the governor’s office.

Preliminary results will be available by year’s end “to allow for any necessary legislative action in the 2021 session of the General Assembly.”

Northam said he will propose an amendment to the budget to pay for the review.

He is also directing the state’s Chief Diversity Officer and Secretary of Education to meet with the school’s board.

“They will meet with you no fewer than three times by year’s end, in advance of funding decisions for the 2021 General Assembly session, and they will reiterate the clear expectation of the Executive and Legislative branches that the culture of VMI will change,” the letter said.

Northam said such actions are necessary because it is “clear that internal action alone is no longer sufficient for VMI to join in the commitment to diversity and equity that the rest of Virginia’s government is embracing.”

A recent Washington Post report described the “relentless racism” Black cadets experience at the school.

Northam graduated from VMI in 1981. He graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1984.

In 2019, photos emerged of an unidentified person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood in Northam’s medical school yearbook page. And, in a 1981 Virginia Military Institute yearbook found on an online archive, a photo of Northam appears with a list of nicknames underneath; one of those nicknames uses a racial slur.

Northam apologized for the image in his yearbook page and at first admitted that he was in the picture. But the next day, he said that he was not in the picture but did admit to wearing blackface during a dance competition when he dressed up as Michael Jackson.

Northam resisted calls to step down, saying he instead wanted to help heal the state’s lingering racial wounds and devote the rest of his term to promoting racial equality. He hired the state’s first director of diversity in September 2019.

Abigail Constantino

Abigail Constantino started her journalism career writing for a local newspaper in Fairfax County, Virginia. She is a graduate of American University and The George Washington University.

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