CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Among the dozens of bills Governor Ralph Northam signed into law earlier this month were 14 aimed at righting historic wrongs 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 an investigative team the Governor founded: the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law. The commission’s interim report uncovered hundreds of pieces of racially-biased legislation still enshrined in the law. The bills 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," Commission member Andrew Block, 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 bulk of these laws were in support of policies like segregated schools, housing, and public facilities. The laws, while they had been superseded by Supreme Court rulings and federal laws, were still on the books in Virginia.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 However, Block says that the goal is to look beyond explicitly discriminatory practices no longer in effect and instead examine the lingering effects of those laws.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, 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.