We know the problems; we need action


9/13/2019, 6 a.m.
It’s tough to dig yourself out of a hole. But Gov. Ralph S. Northam is still in the trench trying ...

It’s tough to dig yourself out of a hole.

But Gov. Ralph S. Northam is still in the trench trying to work his way out eight months after his sad and disgraceful blackface scandal.

His latest attempts to resurrect himself and his bona fides with the African-American community?

He named Dr. Janice Underwood of Old Dominion University as the state’s new director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

He also named a nine-member commission to recommend changes in discriminatory and inequitable Virginia laws and an 18-member Virginia African-American Advisory Board. The board is charged with advising the governor on developing economic, professional, cultural, educational and governmental links between state govern- ment and the African-American community.

To be fair, neither the commission nor the African-American Advisory Board were the governor’s idea. Both arose from measures submitted to the General Assembly by members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. The measures just happened to catch Gov. Northam at a desperate time after the scandal broke earlier this year and during his struggle to get back into the graces of the African-American community.

Lest we, the governor or the state Democratic Party forget, it was African-American voters who played a key role in Democrats winning the top three state posts — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — in November 2017 and in giving Democrats pivotal gains in the House of Delegates.

Unfortunately, Gov. Northam has shifted the burden of dealing with the state’s longstanding racist and inequitable policies and practices over to a diversity czar and two appointed bodies rather than taking leadership and handling the issues we have long known are problems. He can now absolve himself of any responsibility for changing Virginia’s racist laws and ways should the panels fail to act.

Our hope is that the commission and the advisory board will work both expeditiously and strategically. But it is up to Virginians of color and people of conscience to pressure Gov. Northam and the General Assembly to make the needed changes.

The governor can start with eliminating the race question on Virginia’s marriage license applications. Clearly, the requirement that applicants provide their race is a throwback to Jim Crow when Virginia law made it illegal for African-Americans and Caucasians to marry. The racial identification box was stricken from marriage license applications in 2003, but returned to the applications in 2005. We don’t understand why such information is necessary or pertinent. What benefit does it provide to the Commonwealth?

We also point out the inequitable school funding formula in Virginia that shortchanges urban school districts and thousands of African-American children in the state. We don’t need commissions or advisory panels to tell us this is a problem. Gov. Northam simply needs to take the initiative to lead change.

Additionally, for the purposes of the census, state inmates are counted as living in the jurisdictions where the prisons are located. That means many rural, largely white areas of Virginia are benefiting in political clout from redistricting and funding formulas derived from a census count based on the black bodies housed in state prisons in those areas.

Many of the offenders housed in these rural state prisons are from urban areas. The cities and counties where they are from lose out on political representation, clout and funding when these men and women are not counted in their hometown’s population.

Because of the prison count’s significant impact on redistricting, New York passed a bill in 2010 mandating that inmates be counted in the census based on their last known home address.

Virginia needs to adopt a similar practice.

The special commission and advisory board Gov. Northam ap- pointed have their place. But most African-Americans already can identify many of the problems in the state. We urge them to call the governor’s office and clue him in to the racist laws and practices in Virginia — (804) 786-2211.

What’s needed now is action — not a lot of talk from a governor still seeking atonement.

The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law has until Nov. 15 to issue a preliminary report on its findings and recommendations. We will see what Gov. Northam does after that.