Hidden away in dusty drawers or stuffed in boxes long forgotten in the attic, a danger lurks for US politicians: their yearbooks. Often featuring the frat boy humour — or worse — of their youthful selves, the collections of old photos and writings are coming back to haunt America’s elected leaders. The latest high-profile victim has been Virginia’s Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, whose medical school yearbook featured a photograph of a person in blackface next to another dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. As pressure mounted on him to quit, one of the men in line to replace him, Virginia’s attorney general Mark Herring, admitted he too had painted his face black in his school days.
The scandal came just months after Brett Kavanaugh almost saw his nomination to the Supreme Court derailed by allegations of sexual assault when he was in high school, a charge that led to his school yearbook being gone over with fine-toothed comb.
Yearbooks — relics of a pre-digital age when people wrote postcards and took photos on actual cameras, rather than posting on social media — feature pictures of classmates and parties, school trips, fraternities and moments of sporting glory.
Students usually have a personal page where they pose with their best friends, reminisce about their school days, or feature dedications or verse.
In the 1984 yearbook of the Eastern Virginia Medical School, there are plenty of pictures of young interns in white doctors’ coats, smiling at each others’ waiting room quips.
But there are also images of the white robes and pointed hoods used by the KKK, a racist organisation that terrorised black communities in the American South.
Northam’s page features a picture of someone in KKK attire, standing next to another person in blackface, the make-up once used to mock and belittle African Americans.
After initially admitting he was in the picture, the governor then denied he was one of those in the image.
He has resisted mounting pressure from his own party to resign, yet seems unlikely to survive in his post for long.
The scandal has prompted a wave of scrutiny of yearbooks from past decades, bringing other similarly racist material to light. Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook was dusted off last September during confirmation hearings after President Donald Trump nominated the conservative judge to the highest court in the land, prompting a California professor to accuse him of having sexually assaulted her when she was 15 and he was 17.
The allegations brought his yearbook — from an expensive Catholic school in Bethesda, just outside the capital Washington — under humiliating scrutiny, bringing to light the binge drinking and sexual mockery of female classmates that the wealthy schoolboys indulged in.
The yearbook convinced many critics that he did not have the right character to take a seat on the Supreme Court, and the case split the country before Kavanaugh was finally nominated, after a tearful defence before Congress.
The exhumation of these yellow-paged mementos has raised the question among political observers: is there an expiry date on the errors of youth, and is a 55-year-old to be held accountable for the actions of their 18-year-old selves?
Behaviour that today would meet with instant opprobrium would have quite often been unremarkable in the past, noted Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland.
Students in the 1980s “were the children of people raised in the 1940s and 1950s, the era of Jim Crow segregation. They grew up with legal job and housing discrimination,” he said.
Back then, Cohen said, a “big difference was the acceptability of racist attitudes and behaviour.”
The difference these days, he said, is that now “we can force a politician to resign for being racist. That’s progress.” —AFP