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Virginia Governor's Racist Behavior; Derrick Johnson Speaks On Northam. Aired 5-5:30p ET

Aired February 2, 2019 - 17:00   ET


ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: The governor dug his heels in today, admitting racially insensitive things in his past. But he insists he is neither one of the people seen in that yearbook photo from 35 years ago.


GOV. RALPH NORTHAM (D), VIRGINIA: When I was confront with the images yesterday, I was appalled that they appeared on my page. But I believe then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo.

I stand by my statement of apology to the many Virginians who were hurt by seeing this content on a yearbook page that belongs to me. It is disgusting. It is offensive. It is racist. And it was my responsibility to recognize and prevent it from being published in the first place.

My belief that I did not wear that costume or attend that party stems, in part, from my clear memory of other mistakes I made in this same period of my life. That same year, I did participate in a dance contest in San Antonio, in which I darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume. I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that.


CABRERA: As for whether he intends to resign or stay and bare the pressure, Northam says quitting would be the easy way out, and he's not doing it.


NORTHAM: I cannot, in good conscience, choose the path that would be easier for me in an effort to duck my responsibility to reconcile.


CABRERA: CNN's Jessica Dean joins us in Richmond. So, Jessica, two big points that Northam is 100 percent adamant about. One, he is not in that picture. But, two, he is not quitting. Some key people in his party are taking issue with that position.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Ana. We're hearing from a lot of people. We were hearing from a lot of national Democrats and also local Democrats before today's press conference. We've heard from more following today's press conference. We heard from Tom Perez, the Chair of the DNC, who called for Northam's resignation. Asked him to step aside and let Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax become the governor and move forward here in Virginia. So, you have the head of the Democratic Party asking him to resign.

Additionally, we heard from Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax today. A lot of people waiting to hear what he had to say about all of this. I want to read you in part -- a part of what he wrote today. He said, I cannot condone the actions from his past. That, at the very least, suggests a comfort with Virginia's darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping and intimidation.

At this critical and defining moment in the history of Virginia and this nation, we need leaders with the ability to unite and help us rise to the better angels of our nature.

Again, that was from the lieutenant governor, today, who said that the governor had personally reached out and apologized to him. The lieutenant governor also saying because he had ancestors who were enslaved here in Virginia, this episode hits particularly close to home for him.

But, Ana, importantly, we did not hear for the lieutenant governor call for the resignation of Ralph Northam today.

CABRERA: Jessica Dean reporting. Thank you for that update.

With us now, S.E. Cupp, Host of "S.E. CUPP UNFILTERED" at the top of the hour. And Michaela Angela Davis, a cultural critic and writer. Ladies, thank you for being with me.

Michaela, Northam, he denies now being, first, anybody in that picture, the KKK costume or attire, as well as the blackface. But he did say he has put on blackface before to perform as Michael Jackson in 1984, the same year as that photo.

Here's more in how he's explaining himself.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think Virginians will see a meaningful difference between you, in the Michael Jackson face painted and the blackface photo? Is that a -- is that a meaningful distinction in terms of (INAUDIBLE)?

NORTHAM: That's up to them. I mean, I -- if -- everything is in sound bytes these days. But I really do believe that both of them are wrong. But there's a contrast between the blackface and someone standing there in a Ku Klux Klan outfit and me dressed up in a Michael Jackson costume for a dance contest.

And, again, they're both wrong but I would hope people would see the contrast.


CABRERA: Michaela, is there a contrast?

MICHAELA ANGELA DAVIS, CULTURAL CRITIC AND WRITER: Well, first, happy black history month. We're two days in and we've got blackface and KKK.

But, actually, you know, I just -- I just want to acknowledge our elders who may be traumatized and triggered by this image that we keep showing. We keep showing images of the KKK. There are Americans who have been murdered by this terrorist group. There are Americans who have been dehumanized by blackface.

[17:05:06] And we've been looking at this in a constant loop, so I just want to, sort of, level set the people who may be really hurting around this. And I don't -- I mean, the fact that we're comparing blackface today is incredible to me. The fact that he had a nickname of Koon man is incredible to me.

And the humorous (ph) of him to come to the press conference without the institution there. Because what we're learning is that racism, white supremacy, anti-blackness is taught and nurtured and protected. So, no one from that institution came to talk about that image.

How many people said yes? How many people saw it? Who published it? Who were his classmates? Who were his classmates' family who have looked at that photo? That's the work.

You know, people of whiteness, that's your work. If you see something, say something. How many people saw that image and said nothing until today?

CABRERA: That's a good point.

DAVIS: Right? And the family members, like, that's what we can do today. Go home. Talk to your grandparents. Talk to people who lived through that and that imagery. It's not just this one man, or those two men, or those three men, or the fact that, you know, Jussie Smollett had a noose on his neck just this week. This is American history, and we have to reckon with it and not just look at one person and ask him to resign.

We have to look at all of us. And we have to look at our history. And black history month is a really good time to look at the history of racism. And the fact that he didn't even acknowledge the pain of what those people represent and who may be hurting today as a result of consuming these images in a constant loop for 24 hours.

CABRERA: S.E., a lot of people still don't get it.

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it defies logic, to believe that he, I assume, submitted all the rest of those personal photos, but not this one. He has no recollection of that picture or the party. And did not know how he got the nickname, that I won't repeat. Had no explanation for that. And just --

CABRERA: But I wonder what I was -- when I said people don't get it.

CUPP: -- yesterday, took responsibility.

CABRERA: Taking off of what Michaela was saying, though, about the history of this country.

CUPP: Yes.

CABRERA: And grasping the gravity of those images. I think it's safe to say, there are people in this country who don't fully comprehend how offensive, how painful those images are.

CUPP: We don't have to go very far back to think that -- to know that that is true. A very well-known prominent newswoman lost her job for suggesting that it's not that bad. It's not that big a deal. So, I think you're absolutely right.

CABRERA: Well, Steve King. Look at the Republican Party, too. I mean, not prominent examples of -- that we can point to, recently.

CUPP: Yes, I think it's not a stretch to say that racism is alive and well. And to your point, sort of, the unawareness of how bad this is. And you know he doesn't get, because his defenses that other time, I dressed in blackface. Well, I remember that one. And he said, they're both bad.

They're worse than bad. I mean, they're awful, deplorable, appalling, inexcusable, indefensible, fireable, resignable. To not have the humility to say, this is not what Virginia needs right now. And I need to go home and do some soul searching. I need to talk to my family. I need to go away. I need to make amends for this, personally, privately, you know, in my own time.

He is defiant and it's a -- it's a really bad look. This could have been an important teachable moment.

DAVIS: But it's a familiar look, right? Like, what did we learn about Trump? What did we learn about Kavanaugh? So, politically, why not try to keep that seat? We haven't seen -- particularly, if you're a white, heterosexual, Christian male. You're able to get away with -- as Amanda Seales would say, the caucacity of it all, this hubris, the audacity around the privilege that he could stand there and say how he felt. I felt disgusted. I felt appalled.

Yesterday, you didn't know that that wasn't you when you made that video? Only that kind of person could sit there -- could, the next day, say that I'm going to keep my job. And how does that -- how is that the easy route? I'm going to keep my power, so that's the easy. I wouldn't, you know, stand in line for another black man to be the governor.

[17:10:02] So, there's that part, too, that's really in the -- you know, in the room. Like what -- if he really wanted to make amends, that's a great word, why not move out of the way and let a black man take that seat, who is very popular, who is very qualified?

CUPP: Very influential.

DAVIS: Very influential and doesn't have this baggage that --

CUPP: No, this is a man, in fact, just two weeks ago, who, for the second time now, left the dais in the Virginia Senate --


CUPP: -- when they got up to celebrate Robert E. Lee's birthday.

DAVIS: That's right.

CUPP: Something long in the Virginia tradition. He got up. He is a very prominent, important voice. I think not just in Virginia, but in American politics. And he's only 39. He's only going to become an even bigger deal. To stand in his way, I think, is, in particular, a very -- it's a bad look.

CABRERA: Well, let's not forget Charlottesville happened just --

DAVIS: Sure.

CABRERA: -- recently in Virginia. And those wounds are still fresh for so many people in this country. Ladies, I want to continue the conversation. I've got to squeeze in a quick break, so please stay with me.

We have much more on this breaking news. You'll hear how the head of the NAACP is responding to Governor Northam's explanation of the photos in his medical school yearbook. That's next live here in the CNN Newsroom.



CABRERA: We're now on our breaking news. Ralph Northam saying he is not in that racist photo you see on your right side of the screen, that appeared in his medical school yearbook. And he is digging in. He is refusing to resign tonight.

Back with us now, S.E. Cupp and Michaela Angela Davis. I want to play, both of you, something else that Northam said during his press conference this afternoon. Watch.


NORTHAM: While I did not appear in this photo, I am not surprised by its appearance in the EBMS yearbook. In the place and time where I grew up, many actions that we rightfully recognize as abhorrent today were commonplace.


CABRERA: Commonplace. Now, I spoke with the president of the NAACP, Derrick Johnson, a short time ago. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DERRICK JOHNSON, PRESIDENT, NAACP: Blackface in 1984 was a problem as it is today. Being an individual from the south, it is unfortunately a cultural norm for too many people to accept racism. And for him not to acknowledge this on the front end, to identify this as a problem, to object to the yearbook having blackface in it -- in the yearbook, particularly on his page, it speaks to the character of the individual. And that individual -- inability to understand that racism is a problem, not only in Virginia, not only the south, but across this country.


CABRERA: Michaela, we were talking about this during the break even. The fact that 1984 wasn't that long ago. Do you agree with what we just heard?

DAVIS: Yes, of course. And what we were also saying on the break is every Halloween, we brace for blackface to show up on someone's college campus. It happened at my daughter's school. This is -- this is American history. We have to call it what it is. Call a thing a thing. Like, Ku Klux Klan are a terrorist group. Blackface is dehumanizing to black people. Right? And to other people of conscious, that should -- that should appall you.

And the fact that he is standing there when all these black leaders and leaders in his party are asking him to resign, the fact that he is still standing there is proof of his participating in white privilege. It's proof of his participating in this history, thinking that he even had a chance. That you could -- that you could stand in that history and not acknowledge it.

And where -- again, where's the institution? He should have showed up at that press conference with the president of that institution, to talk about the allowance of that photo and others in that yearbook in that year. So, this is institutional, and it is participated in by hundreds of people. That one photo, how many people saw it? How many people let it happen? How many people didn't call it out?

CABRERA: This is the beginning. This is the beginning, again, of a new moment, of a new history.

DAVIS: He could have all kinds of reporting done by today.


DAVIS: He could have figured out who those people are by today. He's the governor of the state. He could have at least brought the institution there to apologize. No one has apologized from the institution for printing that photo.

CABRERA: I hear what you're talking about, in terms of accountability.

DAVIS: Sure.

CABRERA: I want to get your thoughts, S.E., as well. But listen to something else that stood out to this press conference to me.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you still able to moonwalk?

PAM NORTHAM: Inappropriate circumstances.

NORTHAM: My wife says, inappropriate circumstances.


DAVIS: And he considered that?

CABRERA: Inappropriate circumstances coming at this press conference.

CUPP: Yes, he's, sort of, looking around, like, do I have room to do it?

CABRERA: Because that was in reference to the Michael Jackson dance moves Is making light of something that is totally inappropriate?

CUPP: Yes, but the whole press conference was. He is making light of this. And he wants you to think this is not that big a deal. He, obviously, thinks it's not resignable. It's not that big a deal. He's going to -- he's going to stick. He's going to dig his heels in.

But he, sort of, sheepishly looked around and considered this an opportunity to do that and then sheepishly grins, while he, you know, gets schooled by his wife, saying, oh, she says I can't, was grotesque. I mean, he clearly does not have the self-awareness of this moment, of the gravity of the situation. I thought the press conference was wildly inappropriate.

[17:20:02] DAVIS: Yes.

CUPP: And we talked about Charleston.

CABRERA: It sounds like you're saying it did him wrong.

CUPP: And for Charlottesville -- well, yes, it did. We talked about Charlottesville. And the fact that he referenced Charlottesville. He used it. He exploited it to somehow defend himself, I thought was adding insult to injury.

CABRERA: Ladies, I've got to leave it there. Thank you, both, so much for the discussion. Good to have you with us. Don't forget S.E.'s show, "S.E. CUPP UNFILTERED" at 6:00 p.m.

We have this just in, by the way. Virginia's attorney general now calling for Governor Ralph Northam to resign. The first elected leader in Virginia to call for his resignation in the wake of the racist yearbook photo.


[17:25:05] CABRERA: Virginia's attorney general now calling for the resignation of Governor Ralph Northam. He is the first statewide elected official to call for him to step down.

CNN'S Jessica Dean is back with us in Richmond tonight. Jessica, what is he saying?

DEAN: Right. We're just hearing about this now. Ana, he is saying it's no longer possible for Governor Northam to leave our commonwealth. And it is time for him to step down. The attorney general, a Democrat, as you mentioned, the first statewide official to say so, also said that he reached out to Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor, and offered his full support, should Fairfax ascend to the governorship at the end of all of this.

So, Ana, another person calling for Ralph Northam's resignation.

CABRERA: All right. Jessica Dean, we know you'll continue to follow the latest developments as will we.

Here in New York, that does it for me for the moment. I'm back at 7:00 p.m. Eastern with more of this breaking news.

But, first, the CNN special kickoff in Atlanta, hosted by CNN's Hines Ward, Coy Wire and Dave Briggs, is next.