Gov. Northam signs laws repealing discriminatory language still on the books in Virginia

Published: Apr. 21, 2020 at 12:12 PM EDT
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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 The laws, while superseded by Supreme Court rulings and federal laws, were still on the books in Virginia.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 However, Block says that the goal is to look beyond explicitly discriminatory practices no longer in effect and instead examine the lingering effects of those laws.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.”