Opinion: Commentary: Racist Photo Overshadows General Assembly Session

As I write this the 2019 Virginia General Assembly session is at its midway point. We are debating tax policy and getting ready to take up the budget. There are bipartisan efforts on voting rights and rights for LGBTQ people. A deal was struck on coal ash remediation and debate happening on green energy. Unfortunately, the legislative session and politics in general in the Commonwealth have been overshadowed by the debate on Governor Northam. I have received a larger number of calls and emails on the issue of his racist photo and calls for resignation than any other topic this session. I have publicly called for his resignation, and I would like to explain how I came to that decision.

Blackface is not just about painting skin darker or putting on a costume. It is a vivid reminder of a racist and painful history. Blackface originated in mid-19th century minstrel shows that had white actors play enslaved individuals of African descent as ignorant, cowardly, and lazy. It was meant to entertain a white audience, and it degraded the black community. The uniform of the Ku Klux Klan is also a painful reminder of hatred and violence directed against black people and other minorities in this country. Together or not, a joke or not … it doesn’t really matter. It is blatantly offensive today and it was blatantly offensive in the 1980s.

This picture alone was not my reason to call on Governor Northam to resign. On Friday, I received a call from Governor Northam where he told me that he wanted to apologize for his picture. He was sincere. Like most of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, I needed to take time and process what was going on. We issued a statement registering out disgust and left the matter for a moment. A call for resignation came later after his public apology and an additional meeting with the VLBC.

On Saturday Governor Northam changed his story. He did not reach out beforehand or explain how he changed his mind, despite his conviction the previous evening. More than that, he admitted to dressing up in blackface and had a concerning narrative about how he learned blackface was an offensive act much, much later in his life.

Governor Northam has lost his credibility and is unable to govern. I continue to call on him to resign. I believe this in listening to both my conscience and my constituents.

Charniele Herring represents Alexandria City’s 46th District in the Virginia General Assembly where she serves as House Minority Caucus Chair and on the Courts of Justice, Counties, Cities, & Towns, and Agriculture, Chesapeake & Natural Resources Committees. Visit www.charnieleherring.com.

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