Northam establishes commission to examine racial inequity in state laws

During a press conference at the Governor's Mansion in February, Gov. Ralph Northam denied appearing in a KKK yearbook photo but admitted to moonwalking in blackface. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Inspired by bills that require some jobs historically held by black people to be paid at least minimum wage, Gov. Ralph Northam established the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law.

“The purpose of this commission is to review the Virginia Acts of Assembly, Code of Virginia and administrative regulations with the goal of identifying and making recommendations to address laws that were intended to or could have the effect of promoting or enabling racial discrimination or inequity,” Northam wrote in the order.

“Such laws have no place in Virginia or its law books.”

It’s the latest in Northam’s  efforts to make amends for a racist photo found on his medical school yearbook page. A recent report by Eastern Virginia Medical School said investigators couldn’t determine if Northam was in the photo of two people — one in a Ku Klux Klan costume and one in blackface. That didn’t stop Northam from falsely claiming that the investigation concluded he wasn’t in the photo, PolitiFact Virginia pointed out.

Northam, a Democrat, has said he will dedicate his remaining term as governor to racial equity, which has meant addressing criminal justice reform and hiring new staff to help identify areas of inequity.

He made the announcement about the new commission in Norfolk at a ceremonial signing of legislation from Del. Cia Price, D- Newport News, and Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, that requires “newsboys, shoe-shine boys, babysitters who work 10 or more hours per week, ushers, doormen, concession attendants and cashiers in theaters” be paid at least minimum wage.

Northam officially signed the legislation into law in March.

Spruill and Price said some of Virginia’s minimum wage exemptions applied to jobs often held by black people.

“The legislation removing the Jim Crow-era minimum wage exemptions is an example of how we must work to address inequitable laws,” Spruill said in a release. “The goal of the commission is to identify other instances of historical discrimination.”

Northam will be responsible for appointing all members of the commission. His order does not specify how many members there will be.

The commission has to issue an interim report with findings and recommendations no later than Nov. 15.

“This commission will bring people with diverse expertise and backgrounds together to move Virginia forward,” said the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico. “I look forward to supporting action items identified by the commission. I am confident that they will uncover opportunities that will positively impact every corner of the Commonwealth. We must remove these unjust laws from the books immediately.”