After a scandal erupted around Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia this month over a racist photograph in his 1984 medical school yearbook, reporters at USA Today set out on an ambitious review of hundreds of college yearbooks from that time.
That search of yearbooks from 120 colleges in the 1970s and ’80s found that racist imagery like the black-and-white photograph on Northam’s yearbook page — one student dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member and another in blackface — appeared on full, blatant display in dozens of the glossy publications. White students dressed up like black celebrities, smearing on shoe polish to resemble Michael Jackson, or wore Nazi uniforms to parties. In an article published Wednesday, USA Today identified at least 200 instances of racist and derogatory images and material in yearbooks across the United States.
One example was on Page 218 of the 1988-1989 yearbook at Arizona State University. The yearbook was edited by a 21-year-old named Nicole Carroll, who is now USA Today’s own editor-in-chief.
On that page, a photo showed two white male students covered in black paint smiling at the Alpha Kappa Psi fraternity’s Halloween party. On the left, a shirtless man with boxing gloves over his shoulders was dressed as Mike Tyson, while the other student, wearing a wig and a bikini top, was Robin Givens.
Weeks before Halloween in 1988, Givens, an actress and model, filed for divorce from Tyson, who was at the height of his boxing career. She called her marriage a “continuous horror story” and accused him of “unprovoked rages and destruction” and threatening to kill her family.
The yearbook caption, which omitted the students’ names, read, “The business fraternity members went all out for the ball.”
Carroll, who is white, also designed Page 218 of the yearbook. When the photograph was discovered, she “immediately recused herself from involvement in this coverage,” the newspaper said.
The newspaper published its investigation Wednesday along with a column by Carroll, who said she was shocked by the discovery and did not remember the photograph. She declined to comment further Thursday, saying that she did not “have anything more to add than I wrote in my column.”
“I am sorry for the hurt I caused back then and the hurt it will cause today,” Carroll, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1991, wrote in the column. “Clearly the 21-year-old me who oversaw the book and that page didn’t understand how offensive the photo was. I wish I had.”
She added, “Today’s 51-year-old me of course understands and is crushed by this mistake.”
Carroll, who became the newspaper’s editor in February 2018 after nearly 20 years at its sister publication, the Arizona Republic, said she had dedicated much of her journalism career to increasing diversity in newsrooms and covering diverse communities.
“As journalists, we must hold ourselves accountable as we do others, and it is important to call myself out for this poor judgment,” she wrote.
Arizona State also apologized for the photograph.
“The photo in this student publication is a sad reminder that this kind of insensitivity was all too common in past decades,” the university said in a statement Thursday. “Things are changing for the better, for which we at ASU are grateful, but that doesn’t take away the possibility that the picture caused or will cause pain. For that, we are sorry.”
Blackface has endured in American popular culture for more than 185 years, emerging in the early 1830s at minstrel shows and blackface performances in perverse portrayals of slaves by white people. Blackface survived the Civil War, the emancipation, both world wars and through the civil rights era. Even in recent decades, as shown by Northam’s yearbook and the USA Today review, the shameful pastime persists in American life.