ROANOKE — A retired Roanoke plastic surgeon acknowledged that he appears in blackface in Eastern Virginia Medical School's 1984 yearbook, the same yearbook as the one with the racist photo that is threatening the political future of Gov. Ralph Northam.
In a video interview with Roanoke's WFXR television station Monday evening, Dr. Michael Breiner, an associate professor at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, apologized for the photo in which he appears as singer Diana Ross.
Breiner darkened his face and donned a wig, a dress and a pearl necklace. The photo's caption references a song by the Supremes: “‘Baby Love,’ who ever thought Diana Ross would make it to Medical School!”
“Would I do it now, in today’s political climate? No,” Breiner said in the interview. “But at the time, I had talked to our other African-American medical students and I asked them, 'Would this upset you?' And they said no. ... And do I regret it now? Yeah, because it’s a different time. This was 35 years ago.”
Breiner explained that he’s a big fan of Diana Ross, the Supremes and Motown music. “I had a lot of great African-American friends, I still do, and they gave me their blessing that this would not offend them. ... If I had any inkling that this would upset them, I would not have done it.”
Via College prides itself on its recruitment of minority students. In a written statement, the school's president, Dixie Tooke-Rawlins, called Breiner’s response “disappointing.” He is still a faculty member, a school spokeswoman confirmed.
Breiner, a 1985 graduate of EVMS, did not respond to messages from The Roanoke Times via email and voicemail Tuesday.
In the WFXR interview, Breiner stressed that he has been involved with the African-American community in Roanoke, including by serving on the board of Total Action for Progress, an anti-poverty nonprofit.
Breiner ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2007 as a Democrat, losing to Republican Ralph Smith. That’s the same year Northam was first elected to the Senate.
In her statement, Tooke-Rawlins said Via College is reviewing yearbook photos and Breiner's response.
"While the cultural norm 35 years ago may have led to such behavior, it is not difficult in today’s environment to understand that it is inappropriate," she said.
The college learned about the photo and Breiner's WFXR interview Tuesday morning, according to the statement.
The college is a leader in recruiting minority students, she said, ranked second in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. Part of the school's mission is providing opportunity for minority students and populations under-represented in medicine.
Tooke-Rawlins said the college will use this "unfortunate situation" and Breiner's "disappointing response" as a chance for dialogue among faculty students and staff, a process that has already begun.
"While we cannot change behaviors of the past, we can increase our awareness and understanding today," she said. "These are teachable moments for everyone."