UVA law professor helps commonwealth overhaul racially discriminatory laws still on the books

Updated: Dec. 16, 2019 at 5:32 PM EST
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, V.A. (WVIR) - A Charlottesville man is helping the commonwealth overhaul racially discriminatory laws still on the books.

University of Virginia Professor Andrew Block serves on the governor’s Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law. Block is using his experience as an attorney and the former director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s ‘JustChildren Program’ to help overhaul Virginia’s laws.

"What was surprising, and particularly disheartening I guess to me was how comprehensive and strategic and coordinated the discrimination and segregation was across all these different areas of law, housing, transportation voting, education, health, the criminal justice system,” Block said.

The commission group is tasked with identifying the intentionally biased or discriminatory language still on the books in Virginia’s acts of assembly, the chronicle of every legal action taken by Virginia’s General Assembly.

"These are issues that are embedded in so many systems in Virginia, and it was a great opportunity to really take a more intentional look at them,” Block said.

In the commission's interim report, it says 98 laws were inherently racially biased. However, the group leaves it up to the General Assembly to officially take them off the books.

"We made recommendations in the report regarding the repeal of a large number of Acts of Assembly that work will hopefully happen during this upcoming General Assembly session,” Block stated.

A large portion of the work is meant to educate the public and raise awareness that these kinds of laws are still enshrined in the law.

"On the one hand, you read sort of the cold neutral language of the code which could be talking about anything but then when you take it. You both find racist language in it, but then when you take it all together. You see how calculated and strategic, this was and how long-standing it was,” Block said.

The future work of the commission is up to Governor Northam. If the governor does want the commission to continue meeting, Block hopes they look at laws that aren’t as explicitly racist, to start a conversation about laws that might have unintended racial impacts.

12/05/2019 Office of Governor Ralph S. Northam Press Release:

RICHMOND—Today, Governor Northam committed to repealing racially discriminatory language in Virginia’s Acts of Assembly, as identified by the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law.

The Commission’s interim report identified dozens of instances of overtly discriminatory language still on our books, including laws banning school integration, prohibiting black and white Virginians from living in the same neighborhoods, and prohibiting interracial marriage. While many of these Acts have been overturned by court decisions or subsequent legislation, they remain enshrined in law.

“If we are going to move forward as a Commonwealth, we must take an honest look at our past,” said Governor Northam. “We know that racial discrimination is rooted in many of the laws that have governed our Commonwealth—today represents an important step towards building a more equal, just, and inclusive Virginia.”

Governor Northam established the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in the Law in June and appointed members in September. The Commission was inspired by the leadership of Senator Spruill and Delegate Marcia Price in repealing Jim Crow era minimum wage exemptions during the 2019 legislative session. This effort is part of the Northam administration’s ongoing work to right historical inequities in areas like education, healthcare, and access to business opportunities.

“As we continue to build a Commonwealth that guarantees equality, justice, and opportunity for all, we must be honest about those instances when our Commonwealth denied the rights and humanity of its own citizens because of the color of their skin,” said Chief Deputy Attorney General of Virginia Cynthia Hudson, Chair of the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law. “Repeal of these outdated, unjust, and in many cases plainly racist Acts of Assembly is an important step in recognizing and correcting the sins of the past. I thank Governor Northam for his leadership in establishing this commission and in trusting me to chair it, and I look forward to continuing our work in the months ahead.”

The Commission’s work is slated to continue after the 2020 legislative session. As a next step, Commission members will identify laws that, while appearing race-neutral or non-discriminatory on their face, have the effect of perpetuating discrimination and racial inequity.

“As a member of the Richmond 34, I put myself in physical danger to fight back against exactly these sorts of laws,” said Elizabeth Rice, who marched for civil rights while a student at Virginia Union University in 1960. “Almost 60 years later, this racist, unacceptable language should not still be on Virginia’s books. Thank you Governor Northam and members of this Commission for continuing the fight for racial justice and equity, and working to right the wrongs of Virginia’s past.”

The Commission’s full interim report is available here. Watch the video of today’s event here.

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