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RICHMOND—Today, Governor Ralph Northam recommitted to addressing the legacy of structural racism in Virginia’s laws, as his Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in the Law issued its second report outlining policy recommendations to confront the impacts of discriminatory laws. Many of these recommendations are reflected in Governor Northam’s current legislative priorities, including measures to restore voting rights, invest in education, and expand expungements of prior convictions.
“Our Commonwealth remains focused on acknowledging and righting the wrongs of our past,” said Governor Northam. “This latest report makes clear that there is still work to do to shed the ugly remnants of Virginia’s history. The Commission is already having a significant impact on our shared legislative priorities and I look forward to continuing our partnership to build a more honest, equitable, and inclusive future for all.”
The Commission’s recommendations played a key role in the formation of Governor Northam’s current legislative agenda, which includes proposals to automatically restore the voting rights of people with felony convictions, legalize adult-use marijuana, abolish the death penalty, invest in education infrastructure and early childhood education, expand expungement of previous convictions, and protect the ownership rights of “heirs property.” The Commission’s work also informed many of Governor Northam’s legislative proposals for the August 2020 special session that centered on meaningful police reform and COVID-19 relief.
Governor Northam established the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law in June 2019 and appointed its members in September 2019. The Commission was initially tasked with reviewing the Acts of Assembly, Code of Virginia, and administrative regulations to identify racially discriminatory language still on Virginia’s books and making recommendations to address laws that were intended to or could have the effect of promoting or enabling racial discrimination or inequity. The Commission’s interim report, published in December 2019, cited nearly 100 instances of overtly discriminatory language. Working closely with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, Governor Northam proposed and secured the unanimous passage of fourteen bills that repealed racist language related to education, housing, transportation, health care, voting, and more. While many of these Acts of Assembly are longer enforced or have been invalidated by subsequent federal and state legislation and court decisions, they had remained enshrined in law.
In June 2020, Governor Northam extended the term and scope of the Commission with the goals of identifying existing state laws and regulations that create or perpetuate racial disparities and developing policies that increase protections for minority and marginalized Virginians. The Commission’s expanded charge underscores the Northam Administration’s ongoing work to remedy historical inequities in areas like education, health care, housing, and criminal justice.
“We were honored to support the Governor and his effort to right historic wrongs and create a more just and equitable Virginia,” said Chair of the Commission and former Chief Deputy Attorney General of Virginia Cynthia Hudson. “This summer’s events demonstrated that the relevance of the Commission’s work could not be more clear, nor the research and recommendations we made more timely.”
“In addition to informing ongoing policy change, our hope is that this report educates more Virginians about the history of structural racism in Virginia, and the negative impact that this history continues to inflict on so many people, and across so many areas of life, in the Commonwealth today,” said Vice Chair of the Commission and University of Virginia School of Law Professor Andy Block. “Students in the State and Local Government Policy Clinic played a vital role in all aspects of our work, from putting together data on racial disparities, to researching policy recommendations to address these disparities, to helping draft the final report.”
The Commission’s work is slated to continue after the 2021 legislative session, when members will focus their attention on laws and regulations that directly contribute to inequity in economic achievement and stability. The Commission will also use this report as a tool to engage with people across the Commonwealth and gain a deeper understanding of the effects of and solutions to centuries of state-sanctioned racial bias and discrimination in Virginia.
Governor Northam and members of the Commission thanked University of Virginia law students Juliet Buesing, Catherine Ward, Lukus Freeman, Chris Yarrell, Trust Kupupika, Kelsey Massey, and Wes Williams. They also extended thanks to the staff at the Library of Virginia who helped with research and selected historic images that brought the report text to life, including Roger Christman, Vince Brooks, Greg Crawford, Kelley Ewing, Mark Fagerburg, Cassandra Farrell, Dale Neighbors, Renee Savits, and Ben Steck. They also noted the many others that played a substantial role in supporting the Commission’s work, including Jessica R. Killeen, Grace T. Kelly, James “J.D.” Ratliff, and Nathan Dowdy from the Office of Governor.
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