RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – After finding nearly 100 examples of racial inequality in Virginia’s state code, a panel commissioned by the governor recommended Thursday that dozens of laws be repealed even though most cannot be enforced.
The report from the Commission to Examine Racial Inequality in Virginia Law, established by an executive order from Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, highlights codes in the state law books that may be unenforceable but still promote racial inequality.
Broken into categories from voting to education and covering laws passed from 1900 to 1960, the 76-page report is a no-holds-barred look at Virginia’s history of taking and keeping power from racial minorities.
Top among the list is the state’s poll tax, which was passed in 1903 but overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966. The law, which required payment to register to vote and disproportionately impacted black citizens, remains in the state code, according to the report. The Supreme Court case, Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, ended poll taxes across the country.
"Wealth or fee paying has, in our view, no relation to voting qualifications,” Justice William Douglas wrote at the time. "The right to vote is too precious, too fundamental to be so burdened or conditioned."
Other examples in the report include laws that helped establish the state’s segregated school system. In addition, the law that enabled some schools to close their doors rather than integrate, a period of time known as Mass Resistance which spanned years and affected countless black residents, also remains on the books.
The U.S. Supreme Court had to once again step in to stop the state's discriminatory efforts. In 1968, 14 years after Brown vs. Board of Education made school segregation illegal, the high court forced the last Virginia county to open its schools to minorities.
Cynthia Hudson, chair of the commission and chief deputy state attorney general, said in a statement following the report’s release that Virginia must be honest about its history of denying rights to people based on their skin color.
“Repeal of these outdated, unjust, and in many cases plainly racist Acts of Assembly is an important step in recognizing and correcting the sins of the past,” she said.
Northam echoed that sentiment, saying the report marks an important step toward building a more equal and just state.
“If we are going to move forward as a Commonwealth, we must take an honest look at our past,” the governor said in a statement.
While he slammed inequality in past laws, Northam is no stranger to racial controversy. He faced calls to resign earlier this after an apparent photo of the Democratic governor in blackface was found in his yearbook from his years at Eastern Virginia Medical School. However, independent investigation could not determine whether it was Northam in the picture.
Reporting from the Virginia Mercury notes leaders of Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus were approached by Northam to undertake the commission and report.
“The governor took it to the Black Caucus,” Delegate Lamont Bagby, who leads the caucus, told the publication. “Virginia has been working on this for decades now, and we were sort of trying to piecemeal it with legislation … So I just want to say thank you to all of you for leading the way in this effort.”
Efforts to remove such language from the state code are not new. Delegate Marcia Price, whose district includes some of the state's largest black communities in Norfolk, worked successfully with faith leaders during this year’s legislative session to get similarly racist language removed from a minimum wage law passed in the 1970s.
"It was important for us to remove these exemptions from an economic justice perspective to impact the people still working in those positions," she said in a statement without commenting directly on Thursday's report. "But further, it was important that we went through the process of reckoning with parts of the code that were based in proliferating oppression.”
Thursday’s report, meanwhile, said much of the language it examined will require legislation to be removed, but also noted the importance of not forgetting the legacy these laws have created.
“The work must serve dual purposes: it must purge Virginia’s legislative record of invidious laws and enactments, while also avoiding the unintended consequence of historical sanitization,” the report states. “Virginians must never lose sight of the harm caused by failing to recognize the inherent value in one another as people.”
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