Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
Even before the revelation of the racist page from Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook, it was clear that Virginia faces a fundamental challenge: the need for an honest and thorough discussion of race relations in our society.
And that cannot happen through our usual combative, hyperpartisan process. What Virginia needs is an independent truth and reconciliation commission to address seriously its past on race, and to point toward a better future.
The purpose of such a commission would be to confront, reveal and answer for the magnitude of Virginia’s systematic mistreatment of African Americans. It is a shameful history: slavery; Jim Crow laws; official opposition to desegregation of public schools into the 1960s; criminalizing interracial marriage, also into the 1960s; and textbooks within many of our own lifetimes that taught the blatant lie claiming the Civil War was about states’ rights and not slavery.
And, today, far too many of our citizens of color must confront issues that seem distant to many white Virginians — disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration, appalling prison conditions, chronic underfunding of inner-city schools and deficient social services.
To be certain, there has been real progress in Virginia — the state swore in the nation’s first elected African American governor in 1990 and has an increasingly diverse political leadership. But the deadly events of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and the current flare-up that began with the Democratic governor’s yearbook page lay bare what should be obvious: There is a long way to go and a lot of work to be done.
A truth and reconciliation commission on race would be an appropriate start toward healing and, eventually, action. The state legislature has authority to create commissions and to establish their mandate as to scope of work and length of operation. I suggest that one year would be appropriate.
Admittedly, a commission’s study of Virginia’s racial past and present failures would be painful and difficult, and could itself become a flash point of intense partisan and ideological battles. It would, therefore, be important to affirm that the commission’s work must be only advisory in nature and that it should have no subpoena or enforcement authority. Ultimately, only the people’s elected representatives can take substantive action. But the legislature must make clear that it intends to act based on the commission’s ultimate findings.
Typically, members of a state commission are leaders and citizens selected by the legislature and the governor. If past commission memberships serve as a guide, the governor would appoint three to six people, one of whom already serves in his Cabinet; the speaker of the House of Delegates, three; the minority leader, one; and Senate party leaders, similarly, four. Thus, 11 to 14 educators, faith leaders, business and community leaders, and activists would make up the commission, which, I suggest, would meet quarterly and hold a number of public hearings throughout the commonwealth. Significant administrative support should be provided.
The violent rallies in Charlottesville, the unending disputes over Confederate monuments, and the revelations of political leaders having worn blackface earlier in their lives — something a sizable portion of Virginians don’t find all that offensive, according to our own recent poll — all point to a cancer on the soul of this commonwealth.
This year is the 400th anniversary of African slaves arriving on the shores of what became the commonwealth of Virginia. It is an opportune time for the state to face its painful history and turn toward a better future. If political leaders want to make a real difference on issues of race, rather than continue to slug it out in the political arena, appoint an independent, broadly representative and serious-minded commission to begin what will inevitably be a painful but long overdue and much needed process.