Former students say Virginia Senate Majority Leader taught racially insensitive college course

Sen. Tommy Norment (R) edited a college yearbook full of racist images, but called on Gov. Ralph Northam to resign for similar issues.

Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R) sits at his desk on the Senate floor at the Virginia State Capitol
Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R) sits at his desk on the Senate floor at the Virginia State Capitol, February 7, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia. CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Last weekend, Virginia state Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R) joined other legislative leaders in calling on Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to resign over revelations that his medical school yearbook page featured a photo of two people — one in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan uniform.

On Thursday, the Virginian Pilot revealed that Norment himself had been managing editor of a college yearbook of his own that featured racial slurs and images of people in blackface.

Now former students in a college course Norment taught at the William & Mary say that he routinely made racially insensitive and transphobic comments, forced students of color to defend Confederate iconography, and even defended the university’s defunct Brafferton Indian School that educated Native American kids — often without their family’s consent — in the 1700s.

Virginia has a part-time legislature. While Norment’s principal outside job is working “of counsel” for the law firm of Kaufman & Canoles. He also reportedly gets $60,000 a year to teach at William & Mary.


After the news broke on Thursday, one former student who took Norment’s class in the fall of 2016 tweeted that the state senator had “spent 20 minutes fondly remembering how a fraternity on campus dressed as confederates and chained a student in blackface to a tree for the Homecoming Parade.”

ThinkProgress spoke with Akerman and various other William & Mary alums who said they took the course and were deeply offended by their former professor’s racist tone and the content of the course.

“I assumed it was kind of an open secret,” Akerman, who graduated in 2018, said of Norment’s racial insensitivity. “I got the sense that he wasn’t very in touch on race issues.”


The syllabus for the course — titled “You are now a legislator: Politics, Public Policy and Law” — is quite revealing.

A significant part of the course consisted of students being assigned into two teams: One side argued in favor of Confederate flag license plates, William & Mary’s traditional pro-Confederate campus imagery, and the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Norment’s own Confederate-linked alma mater; the other side argued against. Students of color were often assigned to defend the Confederate side, which various students described as deeply uncomfortable.

Even the phrasing of the issues betrayed a clear bias toward Confederate images — a bias students say was evident from Norment’s lectures and his hostile treatment of students assigned to defend the opposite side during the in-class debate.

After William & Mary removed a plaque honoring students who left to fight for the Confederate Army and a ceremonial mace that featured Confederate images in 2015, one question listed for debate was: “Did the innocuous plaque and ring on the Mace really offend our community and make them feel unwelcome, or was it just a cause du jure?”

Another asked, “Is the removal of the plaque and ring on the Mace being deferential to a very small minority to the exclusion of the majority?”  The phrases “innocuous” and “very small minority” conveyed a clear bias that students said arose repeatedly during the course.

Another student recalled that during the debate portion, “Sen. Norment held out his VMI ring which has an emblem of the Confederate flag on it and asked the [student] speaker, who was arguing for removal, ‘Are you offended?’ repeatedly.”


A third student told ThinkProgress that in addition to pro-Confederate remarks, Norment demonstrated insensitivity to Native American and transgender people.

The student noted that Norment defended the Brafferton Indian School, where Native American kids were once taken from their parents to be re-educated. Norment praised the removals and claimed that today “there are no Native American students at William & Mary.” The president of the university’s American Indian Student Association was in the class and had to correct him.

In another incident, Norment denounced and deliberately misgendered Gavin Grimm, the transgender high school student who sued the Gloucester, Virginia school board for his right to use the boy’s restroom. “One class,” the student recalled, “he used the phrase ‘There is some girl who thinks she’s a boy in Gloucester County who’s mad she can’t use the boy’s restroom.'”

ThinkProgress reached out to Norment’s office for comment on Friday. Jeff Ryer, press secretary for the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus, responded with an email that read: “Thank you for your inquiry.  The Virginia Senate Republican Caucus does not recognize ThinkProgress as a professional news organization.”

The Daily Press reported that in 2017, Norment was the “highest paid adjunct professor” at the university by a wide margin in a field that “typically pays less than $10,000.”

As co-chair of the Virginia Senate Finance Committee and majority leader, Norment has an outsize role in setting funding levels for state schools like William & Mary. In 2009, the Virginia Pilot reported that Norment was receiving $160,000 a year to teach two courses and do legal work for the school — a cozy arrangement that the paper noted would allow him to “qualify for a significantly bigger pension when he retires.”

One student recalled that the final assignment for Norment’s course was to write what they had learned. Their three-sentence answer included the phrase, “I learned you are a racist and you don’t care who knows it.”