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Racial inequity committee finds widespread disparities across Virginia, releases recommendations to bridge the gap

The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law released its second report to the...
The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law released its second report to the public on February 10.(WVIR)
Updated: Feb. 11, 2021 at 6:04 PM EST
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - What started as a look through racist laws still on the books in Virginia has now developed into a deep dive into inequity in the commonwealth’s current laws. The findings reveal discrimination across six sectors, from housing and the economy to the criminal justice system.

The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity’s second report was released to the public on Wednesday, February 10, after being provided to Governor Ralph Northam in November. The commission’s findings reveal consistent racial disparities across the board, even decades after segregation and “separate but equal” had been legally banned. For example, 70% of the families living in the most racially segregated neighborhoods in the state today have lived there since the 1970s. Another key example: the committee found that the black-white home ownership gap is larger today than it was in 1968 when the Fair Housing Act was passed.

“This is what structural racism looks like,” the report states.

Commission Vice-Chair Andrew Block, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, says that it was an eye-opening experience for the commission members and the UVA Law students that helped in the research. They were not naïve about the existence of structural racism, but seeing how interconnected the disparities were, and just how long-lasting the effects of centuries of the segregationist laws they studied in their first report were, they were shocked.

“Once you see how much the data in one area of life has in common with another, it’s kind of overwhelming,” Block explained.

The commission explores racial disparities across six categories: Housing, education, criminal justice, health, environmental justice, and agricultural equity. It also contains a final chapter arguing for the commission’s work to continue, and how best to ensure continued equity in new laws being passed, with a chapter on voting equity omitted after the steps the General Assembly took in 2020. Each section contains a historical background on the issue that helps to explain how legal segregation in the past impacts the current law, and how it further connects to other areas of inequity.

“It’s not a surprise that we have segregated schools because we, by law, had segregated neighborhoods,” Block says. “It’s not a surprise that black families have less wealth than white families, because they’re less likely to get loans to buy homes, they’re less likely to be in schools that provide adequate educational opportunities. So, all of these things are connected in sad ways.”

The commission backs up the research with policy recommendations. Many of those have found a home in Governor Northam’s legislative agenda, or have been taken up by legislators in the General Assembly, from increasing access to pre-kindergarten education, to increasing the housing trust fund, and exploring repealing mandatory minimum sentencing.

“It’s important to remember that Virginia benefits when all of our citizens have access to opportunity and we can take advantage of everybody’s talent, and everyone’s inspiration, and everyone’s ideas,” Block said. “To get to that place where everyone’s fully engaged and fully participating, we have to undo some damage that’s been done.”

With the November election looming, Block and his fellow commissioners hope to continue their work beyond the Northam administration, no matter who the next governor is. Block says he hopes that the commission moves from a temporary body to a permanent institution.

“Unless there’s a body that’s really charged with unpacking the history, and looking at what’s happening now and the connection between the past and the present, it will be hard to institutionalize that kind of effort,” He said. “The ongoing work of a commission could both be at a minimum about let’s not make things worse, but hopefully also about how do we make things better?”

To read the full report, click here.

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