Commission finding racist language on the Virginia books expands to review modern laws

Published: Jun. 11, 2020 at 4:56 PM EDT
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On Thursday, in Governor Ralph Northam's

addressing both COVID-19 and racial inequities after the death of George Floyd, the governor announced that he is expanding the mission and extending the term of the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law.

“Acknowledging and addressing the systemic, institutional racism that is deeply-rooted in this country and this Commonwealth continues to be a top priority for our administration,” said Governor Northam. “While we have made significant progress, there is more work to do to eliminate the bias and discrimination that has remained entrenched in our policies even as laws and regulations have evolved. The efforts of this Commission are central to uncovering these inequities, dismantling the systems that have disproportionately hurt communities of color, and forging a path towards racial equity for all who live, work, and, and visit our Commonwealth.”

After encouraging protesters in Virginia to not tear down monuments but let the legal process play out and speak with their local governments, Northam said "statues are far from the only racist relics of our past."

Acknowledging that racism and discrimination were written into the laws of Virginia, particularly in the Jim Crow era, he praised the work of the Virginia Commission to Examine Racial Inequity, which, this past year, identified nearly 100 instances of language in Virginia’s Acts of Assembly and the Code of Virginia that were intended to or could have the effect of promoting or enabling racial discrimination.

In the most recent General Assembly session,


That included laws that blocked the desegregation of schools, banned interracial marriage, implemented a state poll tax, required election officials to separate voter registration records by race, and prevented black and white Virginians from living in the same neighborhoods and traveling on the same railcars, streetcars, and buses.

While subsequent state and federal laws and court decisions had reversed most of them , the discriminatory language had remained on the books until this year.

But Northam said while many old laws have been overturned, discriminatory language remains, and so he's expanding the work of the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law to extend their term and broaden their scope to " identify current state laws and regulations that create or perpetuate inequities, propose changes to increase protections for minority and marginalized Virginians, and provide policy recommendations for state agencies and institutions."


will focus the next stage of its work on public safety, criminal justice, education, health, housing, and voting.

“Virginia has a responsibility to lead at this defining moment given its foundational contributions to the institutionalized racism that has helped define the treatment of African Americans,” said Cynthia Hudson, Chair of the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law. “The Commission is ready to act with the same determination it applied in the first phase of its work, setting in motion the critical reforms we need to answer the demand and eliminate the shameful disparity between the treatment of people of color and the treatment of whites in our criminal justice system, access to education, housing, healthcare, and more. We all need to work together to undo the damage of our history, and we welcome input and support from others as we set about to do this important work.”

A report with recommendations is expected to be issued by mid-November, Northam announced.

“The Commission is particularly thankful for the student researchers from across Virginia who have spent hours and hours identifying racially discriminatory laws in need of repeal and, more recently, identifying ongoing racial disparities in the areas of housing, education, criminal justice, voting, and health,” said Andy Block, Vice Chair of the Commission. “Their work has been indispensable, and they are now helping the Commission develop an initial set of policy responses to address these disparities. It is inspiring to see how committed this next generation of attorneys and advocates is to racial equity and inclusion.”

You can learn more about the Commission on its website


More about the laws passed and signed this past session

Among the dozens of bills Governor Ralph Northam signed into law earlier this month were

in the Commonwealth’s past as it continues to grapple with its complicated history on matters of race.

The governor officially signed bills striking down racist and discriminatory laws and language still on the books in Virginia law. The bills were the product of work done by

: the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law.

uncovered hundreds of pieces of racially-biased legislation still enshrined in the law.

The bills to remove the racially-biased language from the Virginia Code passed through the capitol nearly unanimously.

“I think everybody should be pleased that Virginians of all political stripes are rallying behind the need to move past our structurally racist history,"

, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, said.

Many of the pieces of discriminatory legislation were housed in Virginia’s Acts of Assembly, a legal record of every bill passed by Virginia’s General Assembly.

The panel focused their review on three periods: 1900 to 1910, when many states were taking action to undo progress made during Reconstruction; 1918 through the 1920s, marking the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan; and the mid- to late 1950s, when Southern states fought school desegregation following the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.

The bulk of the laws they found were in support of policies like segregated schools, housing, and public facilities. The laws, while superseded by Supreme Court rulings and federal laws, were still on the books in Virginia.

The future work of the commission has yet to be officially determined. However, Block says that the goal is to look beyond explicitly discriminatory practices no longer in effect and instead examine the lingering effects of those laws.

“You know, we have 400 years, essentially, of racism and oppression in Virginia," Block explained. "Even though those laws aren’t on the books any longer, the effect of those laws still exist in everyday life, sadly, across the Commonwealth.”

One effect the commission will be looking into is healthcare outcomes for people of color. The higher rate of negative outcomes for people of color is something that has been further highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Block. It’s just one of several areas the professor, and several of his students, are looking into at the request of commission members.

“I was lucky enough to have a group of law students work with me to identify significant and persistent racial disparities in the area of housing, education, criminal justice, and voting in Virginia," Block explained.

With the COVID-19 crisis continuing, it’s unclear when the commission will meet next.

Governor Northam originally formed the commission in June of 2019, several months after a scandal erupted over a racist photo of someone in blackface and someone in Ku Klux Klan robes on his medical school yearbook page.

The controversy nearly forced him from office. But Northam resisted widespread calls to resign and pledged to focus the remainder of his term on addressing Virginia's long history of racism and racial inequities.

“I want Virginians to know our full and true story. And I also want us to build a Virginia where everyone feels welcome,” the governor said at the time. “Language that discriminates, whether or not that language still has the force of law, is part of our past, not our future.”