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Commission Report Details History of Racial Discrimination in Virginia Laws

Original documents of the legislation
Original documents of the legislation mentioned in the report were on display as the commission released its findings to the public.

Reported by VPM Intern Alan Rodriguez Espinoza.

The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law released its first report Thursday, revealing 98 incidents of racially discriminatory language in Virginia Acts of Assembly dating back to 1901.

The commission was established by Gov. Ralph Northam in June to identify Virginia laws that enforced racial segregation and perpetuated racial discrimination in Virginia. Many of these laws were later ruled unconstitutional but remain on the books. 

The report found laws that negatively impacted racial minorities on issues such as voting, transportation and education, among others. 

Cynthia Hudson, the Virginia Chief Deputy Attorney General, serves as chair of the commission and oversaw the process.

“It was painful. It was disheartening. It was eye opening,” Hudson said. “But it helped to build a resolve, and an appreciation for being in the space I’m in today to do the kind of work I’m doing in the public policy space.”

Among the 98 laws the report listed was the Racial Integrity Act, which banned interracial marriage and legally classified all non-white individuals as “colored” and the 1903 authorization of the poll tax, which was used to suppress the black vote.

Elizabeth Johnson Rice was a member of the Richmond 34, a group of Virginia State University students that engaged in a sit-in protest at a department store in 1960. At the announcement of the commission’s report, she said the formation of this commission is “a step forward.”

“Everything that brings us closer and forward is a part of history,” Johnson Rice said.

Gov. Northam said his party intends to follow the recommendations of the commission and will work to repeal the laws highlighted in the report during the upcoming General Assembly session in January. Northam said he does not anticipate much partisan objection.

“It’s also important to educate and enlighten Virginia of our past so that we don’t go back there and can move forward in a more inclusive way,” Northam said.

Hudson said the report was only the first phase of the commission’s work, and it will continue examining Virginia law for racially discriminatory language.

“The nature of the work will turn to trying to discern what the impact is from an equity perspective of current law that might not on its face appear discriminatory but on its effect disproportionately impacts people of color and other underrepresented communities,” she said.