Panel Calls for Virginia to Purge ‘Explicitly Racist’ Laws and ‘Segregationist Policies’
WASHINGTON – A Virginia commission tasked with researching racist laws adopted in the state’s past recommended Thursday that scores of them be officially repealed, including measures that prevented black voters from casting ballots and prohibited interracial marriage.
“The devastating long-term social, economic, and political impact of legalized segregation in Virginia continues to plague people of color today,” a 72-page report released by the panel says.
The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law was appointed by Gov. Ralph Northam in June, months after a scandal erupted over a racist photo of someone in blackface in the governor’s medical school yearbook.
Northam initially acknowledged he was in the photo and apologized, but later reversed himself, saying he was not the individual in the picture.
The controversy almost forced the Democrat out of office, but investigators later said they could not conclusively establish the person in the photo was him.
In an effort to move on from the controversy, Northam vowed to spend the rest of his term disentangling Virginia from its long history of racial inequities.
Appointing the nine-member commission was the first tangible step down that road.
Northam chose Chief Deputy Attorney General Cynthia Hudson to lead the panel, and filled the remainder of the seats with attorneys, judges, law professors and community leaders.
What they found, Hudson said on Thursday, is that while scores of these laws were “rendered null and void” by an amended Virginia Constitution, landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases and the passage of later laws, the “vestiges of Virginia’s segregationist past that still sit on the books.”
“We should not afford them the distinction of that official status,” she said at a news conference in Norfolk.
The commission wants the state General Assembly to start striking the laws from the books when the next legislative session begins in January.
On Thursday, Northam vowed to make that happen.
“I want Virginians to know our full and true story. And I also want us to build a Virginia where everyone feels welcome,” he said.
“Language that discriminates, whether or not that language still has the force of law, is part of our past, not our future,” he added.
The commissioners were assisted in their work by students and members of the governor’s staff.
Initially, they focused primarily on the written legislative record of the General Assembly from 1900 to 1960, paying particular attention to the period of 1900 to 1910, when many states were trying to legally undo the advances of the post-Civil War reconstruction period. They also closely examined the 1920s, which saw the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and the late 1950s, when Virginia and other Southern states tried to prevent the school desegregation mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education.
Although the report touches on the hot-button issue of Confederate Monuments, the commission makes no specific recommendations, preferring to allow pending litigation over them to take its course.
On Thursday, both the governor and Hudson said the panel’s work will continue.
According to the governor’s office, it will next work to identify laws that appear race-neutral or non-discriminatory but “have the effect of perpetuating discrimination and racial inequity.”
“Comparing the rates of home ownership, educational achievement, negative health outcomes, criminal justice involvement, and professional and financial stability for nonwhite and white Virginians makes it painfully clear that Virginia is a long way from true racial equity,” the report says.
Northam agreed with that assessment on Thursday, saying one report is “not going to reverse 400 years of history.”
“But what a great beginning this is,” he said.