Home Asian Americans Former Secretary of Education Atif Qarni Comments on the Rejection of Youngkin’s...

Former Secretary of Education Atif Qarni Comments on the Rejection of Youngkin’s Board of Education Appointee, Wonders “are the Republicans in this case anti-merit and pro-equity?”

"Shouldn't we be looking at the merit of an individual if somebody does not have the qualifications?"


Yesterday, State Senate Democrats rejected three appointees of Gov. Glenn Youngkin: 1) “the appointment of Health Commissioner Colin Greene, Virginia’s top public health official, over comments he made downplaying the significance of racism as a driver of health disparities”; 2) “Virginia Parole Board member Steven Buck, whom Democrats said has voted to grant parole in a vanishingly small number of the cases the new board has heard”; and 3) “Youngkin Board of Education appointee Suparna Dutta, an Indian immigrant who has criticized progressive education policies that she believes overemphasize the importance of race.”

For more on Colin Greene, see VA Del. Candi King Rips LG Winsome Sears For Her “silence on the racist and dangerous comments of [ VA’s Chief Public Health Official] Colin Greene”; Virginia Health Advocacy Organizations Denounce Commissioner Colin Greene’s Views on Racism and Public Health (Greene’s views “are mired in racial stereotypes and antithetical to the most basic expectations we hold for Virginia’s public servants”); “There’s no place for white supremacy in Virginia,” Yet Youngkin Says Racist VDH Head Who “Trumpets These Disgusting Views” Is “Very Capable”; etc. So obviously, this guy should have been rejected.

As for Steven Buck, you can see the discussion in the State Senate yesterday at this link. In short, as Sen. Scott Surovell argued, Buck has participated in “approximately 75% of [2,000] cases” and has only voted to grant parole 7 times, “which comes to a calculation of 0.003%” [note: that’s actually incorrect, should be 0.47% of 1,500 cases he participated in] and that “it appears from his record…that this individual doesn’t believe in the law and doesn’t  seem to follow the law.”

Finally, regarding Suparna Dutta, you can watch the Senate floor discussion yesterday on her appointment here, in which Sen. Ghazala Hashmi stated – after being asked by conservative Republican Senator Steve Newman – that there were “concerns of a lack of work in the field of education; this particular board member has not been a part of education or any kind of educational entities…and therefore is not qualified to serve on the Board of Education.” Further prodded by Sen. Newman to give more details about why Democrats were opposing this particular nomination, Sen. Hashmi argued that in addition to not being qualified, “this particular individual board member has raised some serious issues around the concerns of racism, slavery, American history, most recently in the discussions on Standards of Learning, this particular Board member indicated that racism was not a factor in American history, that the constitution of the United States did not have any indications of racism or slavery in the document, we know that that is not correct…” Finally, Sen. Hashmi argued:

“It gives me no pleasure to bring this name forward for removal from the state Board of Education. I am a South Asian woman myself, I’m an immigrant, and so I would of course be absolutely delighted to have a person similar to  my own background appointed to this very prestigious and very very important Board. However, we know in taking a look at the history of this particular individual, that there are areas of problematic concerns for all of us. One areas that I would just speak to briefly is the alignment that we have seen with very extreme and right-wing white supremacist groups. The agenda of forcing a perspective on our history and on this nation’s standards that denies the role that slavery played in this country, that denies the existence of anti-Black racism in this country, that is very problematic for many of us…It’s very critically important that we appoint individuals to this particular Board who are determined and focused to bring equity, to bring resources and to uphold the promise of public education for every child in the Commonwealth. This individual does not do that. This individual raises many concerns, and it is important for us to ensure that our Board of Education reflects the best values and that it is populated by individuals who are focused on improving public education for every child in the Commonwealth.”

The appointment was then rejected by the State Senate on a party-line (22-18) vote. So with that background, I had a chance this afternoon to chat with former VA Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, and he had some thoughts he wanted to share. See below for some highlights.

  • Qarni talked about the letter he sent back in November to Senators Lionell Spruill (Chair of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee) and Louise Lucas (Chair of Senate Education and Health Committee), which he asked “that you kindly consider asking each of the five new appointees to testify in front of your committee so they can be questioned about their credentials and their intent on what they plan to do with issues like History Standards,” adding, “I think the public needs to know if these appointees will succumb to pressure from Governor Youngkin or will they act with integrity and listen to the public.” In that same letter, Qarni wrote, “I strongly believe, from my observations, that the State Superintendent and the new BOE appointees are acting in bad faith, due to the pressure from Governor Youngkin and his office because they are beholden to him. That is why I recommend a full removal of the new appointees’ names from the Senate confirmation list.”
  • Qarni also discussed the fact that “the reason the governor had an opportunity to appoint five and not just three people is that the Northam appointees to the board were removed,” including “two African-Americans…one was the teacher of the year…so they took the teacher of the year…a Black man and then he removed another Black woman who was a dean of  the school of education at the University of Richmond…”
  • “The Senate has the power to confirm and really doesn’t need any kind of rational or reason…it happens all the time in Washington, it happens in Richmond…it’s good to have a rationale…Senator Hashmi who is the chairperson of the education commission Committee in the Senate…really cares about education deeply, has been…a lifelong educator…probably had some significant concerns to raise…There are 22 state senators from across the Virginia who have very different…perspectives about education…They obviously collectively saw some alarming evidence.”
  •  “It’s [the Senate’s] job” to vet appointees. As Qarni noted, he went through a “very rigorous process,” “testified in front of both of the chambers.”
  • As for whether appointees to public positions are private citizens, Qarni said “this is a political appointment, nobody forces an individual.”
  • As for accusations that Dutta was “smeared,” Qarni said, “I don’t know what folks mean by smearing; asking questions about a person’s credibility isn’t smearing because that happens all the time…a lot of people were attacking Secretary Holton who serves on the Board of Education…I think it’s kind of a double standard where Republicans will…project what they’re doing on Democrats, so there’s a hypocrisy there…I don’t think anything said about her was factually inaccurate…That’s not smearing, it’s a fact.”
  • “…in my opinion, the Republicans make a big deal about, well we’re focusing too much on equity and not merit…but in this case, I mean no no offense, but shouldn’t we be looking at the merit of an individual if somebody does not have the qualifications, if they are lacking merit, should they be on an influential board like the Board of Education…There are many more people qualified who have much more merit to be on the Board of Education.”
  • “Republicans for the last few years have had the drumbeat that Democrats are supposedly always talking about race…it’s ironic that they’re now talking about race…[Republicans say]  racism doesn’t exist…but then they’re crying about racism, so it’s…inconsistent and hypocritical…stick to one perspective, don’t keep switching things up…They want chaos…I see a lot of violent rhetoric…on social media, it’s really disturbing…”
  • Qarni said, “I saw how Senator Newman…treated [my staff], it was not respectful, it was not easy to work with …You have to give each other respect. Right now what I’m saying, especially in the Republican Party…a lot of vitriol and hate…the decorum and disrespect is predominantly coming from Republicans.”
  • “This is something that might upset them, but the truth sometimes hurt…These are white men who think that they’re smarter than others…They basically are using this token person and they are the ones who say CRT is bad, let’s not talk about systemic racism or acknowledge racism exists, but they’re using this individual who agrees with them…Their rhetoric basically divides minority groups…[It’s] divide and conquer [to try to get Asian-American voters to abandon Democrats and vote Republican]…There has been a strategic decision that the Republican Party has made that instead of trying to become more inclusive and realizing that we have significant problems that impact different racial groups…they’re like no, we’re going to maintain the status quo of the toxic culture and we’re going to use underhanded tactics to divide and conquer…In this specific instance, this is
    one example…where a person of color is being tokenized, and that person of color might be okay with being tokenized, because there’s a whole history where people will try to appease the majority group in power…their own self-interest
    or…might fundamentally believe that racism doesn’t exist or colonialism should not be talked about.”
  • Qarni then talked about how, when he was first getting involved in politics, he was recruited by Republicans, but decided that his values didn’t mesh with today’s Republican Party. “Frankly, I think for people of color…individually at the micro level, it actually at teams might be easier to advance in the Republican Party because there are not that many…it’s more competitive in the Democratic Party…but I don’t want to sell myself out…”
  • “If this person were a White woman or a White man, would they say a White person was rejected or a Christian person was rejected?…Republicans just want to pounce on any opportunity…They honestly don’t care about people of
    color, they don’t even care about Mrs. Dutta – she can try to make herself believe that they do – they don’t care about that one individual, they’re just using her…and I think some of them were probably kind of looking and waiting for something like this to happen because, in the end, I think they’re just, hey can we steal away some votes?”
  • “You can’t attack all those initiatives and be anti-equity, and then in this case say what about this individual? So are you then for equity, because this individual person is a person of color, [even though] doesn’t have the qualifications that numerous other people do…So are the Republicans in this case anti-merit and pro-equity?…There’s this hypocrisy how they talk about race when it’s convenient for them…”
  • “I think there’s anti-Muslim rhetoric that the Republican Party allows…that’s something that’s really bothersome.”
  • “I think that people of color…that are part of the Republican Party…I think they tend to go to extremes because they want to fit in so bad…”

UPDATE 2/10/23: See below for Qarni’s presentation to the Arlington Committee of 100 this week, covering much of the material we discussed above.





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