UVA law professor helps commonwealth overhaul racist laws still on the books

Published: Dec. 17, 2019 at 3:41 PM EST
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A Charlottesville man is helping the commonwealth overhaul racially discriminatory laws still on the books.

University of Virginia Professor Andrew Block serves on the governor’s Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law. Block is using his experience as an attorney and as the former director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s ‘JustChildren Program’ to help overhaul Virginia’s laws.

"What was surprising, and particularly disheartening, I guess, to me, was how comprehensive and strategic and coordinated the discrimination and segregation was across all these different areas of law, housing, transportation voting, education, health, the criminal justice system,” Block said.

The commission is tasked with identifying the intentionally biased or discriminatory language still on the books in Virginia’s acts of assembly, the chronicle of every legal action taken by Virginia’s General Assembly.

"These are issues that are embedded in so many systems in Virginia, and it was a great opportunity to really take a more intentional look at them,” Block said.

In the commission's interim report, it says 98 laws were inherently racially biased. However, the group leaves it up to the General Assembly to officially take them off the books.

"We made recommendations in the report regarding the repeal of a large number of Acts of Assembly that work will hopefully happen during this upcoming General Assembly session,” Block stated.

A large portion of the work is meant to educate the public and raise awareness that these kinds of laws are still enshrined in the law.

"On the one hand, you read sort of the cold neutral language of the code which could be talking about anything but then when you take it. You both find racist language in it, but then when you take it all together. You see how calculated and strategic, this was and how long-standing it was,” Block said.

The future work of the commission is up to Governor Northam. If the governor does want the commission to continue meeting, Block hopes they look at laws that aren’t as explicitly racist, to start a conversation about laws that might have unintended racial impacts.


Dec. 5

A commission assigned to research racist laws from Virginia's past recommended Thursday that dozens of them be repealed, including measures that resisted desegregation, prevented black voters from casting ballots and prohibited interracial marriage.

While most of the measures are outdated and “have no legal effect,” they are still enshrined in law, the nine-member commission of attorneys, judges, scholars and community leaders wrote in an interim report.

Although “some of these acts were rendered null and void by an amended Virginia Constitution, by landmark civil rights cases or legislation, it’s clear that they are vestiges of Virginia’s segregationist past that still sit on the books,” Chief Deputy Attorney General Cynthia Hudson, who chairs the commission, said at a news conference in Richmond. “We should not afford them the distinction of that official status.”

The commission said the laws should be repealed in the legislative session that begins in January, and Gov. Ralph Northam pledged to work with fellow Democrats who will control the General Assembly to do so.

Northam announced the formation of the commission in June, 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,” he said Thursday in remarks that did not directly address the scandal. “Language that discriminates, whether or not that language still has the force of law, is part of our past, not our future.”

Del. Lamont Bagby, who chairs the legislative black caucus, said the group appreciated the commission’s work. Caucus members had been trying to do the same thing for decades in a piecemeal fashion with legislation, he said.

“I also want to make sure it’s clear: A lot of people think this is something the black caucus took to the governor. No, the governor brought it to the black caucus,” Bagby said, to applause from the audience.

Many of the acts flagged for repeal were measures intended to enforce the state's strategy of “massive resistance” to federally mandated school integration. Another provided for public playgrounds segregated by race. One authorized the town of Smithfield to make an annual appropriation to an all-white military company.

The commission also reviewed laws regarding Confederate statues and other issues related to the Confederacy, but declined to make any specific recommendations about them, citing pending litigation and lawmakers' efforts to deal with those questions during the upcoming session.

A violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville two years ago renewed the debate over whether Confederate monuments should remain in public spaces, but memorials to war veterans are currently protected by state law.

The commission said it planned to continue its “careful and deliberate review" and would “await orderly judicial or legislative actions,” the report said.

Given the vast scope of the commission's work, it began by examining only the state’s Acts of Assembly — the complete written legislative record of the General Assembly — from 1900 to 1960.

Within that period, the report said, the panel focused 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.

Undergraduates, law students and staff from the governor’s office assisted with the research, which was made more difficult because many of the records exist only on paper, the report said.

The governor and committee members said the work would continue. Commission members will next work to identify laws that appear race-neutral or non-discriminatory but “have the effect of perpetuating discrimination and racial inequity,” according to a news release from Northam's office.

“We’re not going to reverse 400 years of history with one interim report, but what a great beginning this is,” Northam said.