“Change Is Taking Too Long” — Cabinet Member Speaks Out Amid Gov. Ralph Northam’s Blackface Fallout

Pressure for Ralph Northam to resign mounts after a photo surfaced of a man in blackface, initially understood to be Northam, next to a man in KKK robes.

RICHMOND, VA - FEBRUARY 02: Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks with reporters at a press conference at the Governor's mansion on February 2, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia. Northam denies allegations that he is pictured in a yearbook photo wearing racist attire. (Photo by Alex Edelman/Getty Images)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks with reporters at a press conference at the governor's mansion on Feb. 2, 2019, in Richmond, Va. Photo: Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Pressure for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to resign is mounting after a medical school yearbook page surfaced showing a photo of a man in blackface, initially understood to be Northam, standing next to a man in Ku Klux Klan robes. Over the weekend, Northam denied being in the photo, but apologized for wearing blackface while impersonating Michael Jackson on another occasion. Reports also revealed that Northam’s Virginia Military Institute yearbook page listed him with the nickname “Coonman.”

Northam has not yet decided whether he’ll resign, but patience among members of his cabinet is wearing thin.

Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni posted a statement on the progressive political blog Blue Virginia in which he called his state to reflect on its “ugly history.” He argued that “change is taking too long” and denounced statewide political leadership for its lack of racial and ethnic representation. He went on to express empathy for the disparate treatment that Black Americans face at the hands of police.

“Experiences of several marginalized communities pale in comparison to the Black experience in America,” Qarni wrote. “I have had a few unpleasant experiences with law enforcement; however, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be slammed to the ground and handcuffed without cause. Or even worse, shot dead.”

The secretary compared anti-black racism to the experiences of him and his wife, Fatima. “My wife wears a hijab and when she and I travel by air, I feel like all eyes are on us; however, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have your actions be monitored and scrutinized every day of your life, even while running basic errands.”

“I feel anger that my ancestors were colonized by white people; however, I can’t imagine living in a country where my ancestors were trafficked, shackled, beaten, raped, lynched, and enslaved,” Qarni’s statement continues. “White and other people of color can empathize and try to relate to the Black experience in our nation; however, no one can truly grasp the depth of the pain, trauma, humiliation and anguish felt by Black Americans over the last 400 years in this country.”

The governor called an all-staff meeting Monday morning, but made no decision on how to respond to an increasing number of requests from state and national political leaders for him to step down.

In an email to The Intercept, state Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said that while he serves “at the pleasure of the Governor, I work for the people of Virginia. I just plan to keep doing my job.” Other members of Northam’s cabinet did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe; Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner; Rep. Bobby Scott; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass; former Attorney General Eric Holder; and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton are among Democrats who’ve called for the governor to resign. Democratic presidential hopefuls Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro have also called for Northam to resign.

Virginia’s Democratic leader in the state Senate defended Northam in an interview with the Washington Post on Friday, saying there is no need to examine “something that occurred 30 years ago.” Sen. Dick Saslaw, who’s facing his first primary challenge as a state senator in June, has a controversial history of questioning whether racial or religious minorities could win in the majority-white, majority-Christian state and of defending the state’s Confederate history. Qarni, in 2015, wrote an op-ed detailing challenges he faced while running as a Muslim candidate for the state House of Delegates, and in a comment on a Facebook post criticizing the op-ed, he named Saslaw as part of the problem.

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