Commission looking at racial disparities in state law plans to be almost finished in November

The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The commission charged with finding racial inequities in state laws plans to be done with most of its work shortly after Election Day.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced he was creating the commission in June and named the members in September. The move followed legislation in the last General Assembly session carried by Sen. Lionel Spruill, D-Chesapeake, and Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, that removed jobs historically held by black people from the list of positions allowed to be paid less than minimum wage.

“Racial discrimination is rooted in many of the laws that have historically governed our commonwealth — identifying and eliminating racist and discriminatory language will help make Virginia more equitable for all who live and work here,” Northam wrote in a statement announcing members of the commission.

Northam’s creation of the commission came about five months after a photo of a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume was found on his medical school yearbook page. Northam admitted, then denied he was in the photo, but said he would spend the remainder of his term dedicated to racial equity.

The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia law, made up of almost all attorneys, agreed that explicit mentions of “white” or “colored” people in the state’s Acts of Assembly should be recommended for repeal.

They are looking for similar references in health, financial, voting, housing and criminal laws.

On Wednesday, the group added several old laws from the early 1900s to their list that explicitly barred black people from traveling on trains with white people. There were several versions of the law, with some specifically for certain rail companies, meaning each would have to be repealed separately.

Some cases aren’t as simple as finding a specific word. In one example discussed at the group’s Wednesday meeting, former Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Herring suggested removing a provision that allowed Dickenson County to purchase buses to transfer students to a specific school.

While it didn’t mention black students specifically, Herring said he was concerned it was a way of implementing Massive Resistance, allowing white students to avoid going to school with black students.

By Nov. 7, the group plans to have a list of state laws and regulations that they think should be repealed.

Jerrauld Jones, a Norfolk judge and father to Democratic Del. Jay Jones, said the mechanism and breadth of their recommendations could depend on which party takes a majority in the legislature Nov. 5.