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As he tries to recover from blackface scandal, Virginia Democratic Gov. Northam calls slaves 'indentured servants'

This comes after weeks of controversy that began when Northam seemed to casually endorse infanticide

Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Embattled Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has spent the past week trying to recover from the admission that he wore blackface in medical school. But whenever he opens his mouth to defend himself, he seems to make the situation worse.

On Sunday, while on a goodwill tour to prove that he had learned his lesson and now understood the struggle of black Americans, Northam referred to slavery as indentured servitude.

Here's what happened

"CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King gave Northam what should have been a softball question: "This has been a very difficult week for you and the state of Virginia, so where would you like to begin?"

"Well, it has been a difficult week. And you know, if you look at Virginia's history, we're 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 —"

"Also known as slavery," King said, gently interrupting him.

"Yes..." Northam responded.

For those who might not know, an indentured servant was someone who agreed to work, often in harsh conditions, for a set period of time to pay off a debt. People frequently went into indentured servitude voluntarily, for example to pay for passage to America, and they could look forward to a day when they would be free again.

Slaves had no such hope of eventual freedom, and by definition never got anything in return for their services.

During the same interview, Northam explained that he was not planning on resigning because he thought he was the best person to lead the state.

"Virginia needs someone that can heal. There's no better person to do that than a doctor," the governor said. "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, but we're in a unique opportunity now — again, the 400-year anniversary of the history, whether it be good or bad, in Virginia — to really make some impactful changes."

"Of slavery in this country, in this state, yeah," King added, after Northam again failed to actually say what this year was the 400th anniversary of.

What's the background?

On Feb. 1, the website Big League Politics published a page from Northam's medical school yearbook, which showed a man in blackface standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood.

At first, Northam apologized for appearing in the photo. Then, a day later, he denied he was one of those two people. He claimed he was calling former classmates to "jog their memories" about the incident. He would later say that the photo could not have been him, because he distinctly remembered wearing blackface at another event.

A report from the Washington Post claimed that the yearbook page had been leaked to the media by a former classmate who was outraged by comments Northam had made when he seemed to casually endorse infanticide. In a WTOP interview on Jan. 30, Northam tried to defend an abortion bill being debated at the time in his state that would have, by the bill sponsor's own admission, allowed for abortion during labor.

Northam took that one step further, and offered a scenario in which a baby was born alive and then doctors and the mother would "have a discussion" about whether or not to kill it.

Democratic Party leaders, outraged over the blackface incident but apparently not the infanticide comments, called for Northam to resign.

However, these calls have faded since Virginia Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who is next in line behind Fairfax to assume the governorship, has admitted to also once wearing blackface. If all three of these Democratic officials resigned, the governorship of Virginia would pass to Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Cox.

One last thing…
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