By Stefanie Jackson – Eastern Shore Healthy Communities held a full coalition online meeting Nov. 10, during which Karen Downing made a presentation on the effort to remove systemic bias in Virginia law.
The work began in September 2019 when Gov. Ralph Northam’s nine-member Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law was seated.
Northam established the commission by executive order 32 in June 2019, in response to a controversy involving a photo on a page about him in his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. The photo showed two unidentified individuals, one in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
Northam was called on to resign, but he remained in office and pledged to focus the remainder of his term on addressing Virginia’s history of racism and inequity.
His decision to establish the commission was influenced by bills passed by the Virginia General Assembly, which repealed minimum wage exemptions left over from the Jim Crow era.
Northam directed the commission to examine Virginia’s laws and regulations and recommend how they could be changed or eliminated if they “were promoting or enabling racial discrimination or inequity,” Downing said.
The commission’s research was assisted by law students from the University of Virginia and across the country, and it focused primarily on three historical periods: 1900 to 1910, when state legislatures were attempting to undo the progress of Reconstruction; 1918 through the 1920s, during the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan; and the mid-to-late 1950s, when Southern states were reacting to the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregation in public schools was illegal.
The commission’s first report, released in December 2019, stated the Virginia Acts of Assembly and the Code of Virginia contained more than 100 instances of language that promoted or enabled racial discrimination.
The laws cited had blocked desegregation of schools, banned interracial marriages, instituted a state poll tax, required voter registrars to separate voter registrations by race, and prevented Black and White people from living in the same neighborhoods and traveling in the same rail and street cars and buses.
Many people do not realize that such laws are still “on the books,” Downing said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia responded to the initial report by stating “that Jim Crow is still alive and well in Virginia, enshrined in our laws and how those laws are being used to perpetuate racism and systemic oppression.”
The commission’s findings prompted action to address systemic racism and oppression not just in state law but also in the public square. For example, the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond was removed this September, Downing noted.
That action was preceded in 2020 by the General Assembly passing a bill that established a commission to determine which Virginia citizen of historic significance (or known for distinguished civil or military service) should replace Robert E. Lee on a new statue.
In January 2020, bills were filed to repeal obsolete and discriminatory Virginia laws dating back to the early 20th century.
In July 2020, the General Assembly passed a bill ensuring that Confederate monuments and memorials could be removed by localities.
Also in 2020, Northam amended executive order 32 to extend the term of the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law and to expand the scope of its research to include housing, education, criminal justice, health care, environmental justice, and agricultural equity.
The commission in November 2020 released a second report, which focused on those issues; it also requested that the commission be codified (established permanently by law) and recommended that proposed legislation also should be viewed through an “equity lens,” Downing said.
A third report is expected before Northam’s term ends.
To view the 2019 and 2020 reports, visit https://www.governor.virginia.gov/racial-inequity-commission/reports/