Those measures, and scores of other patently racist laws in Virginia dating from the early 20th century, have been rendered moot by subsequent court decisions and federal statutes. Still, their lingering presence in state code is an affront to decency and democracy as well as a blistering reminder of a long and inglorious chapter of the Old Dominion’s history.
That was part of the compelling logic that prompted Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to establish a state commission that has issued an interim report urging the General Assembly in Richmond formally to repeal nearly 100 laws dating from 1900 to 1960. The laws sought to enshrine racially separate schools, neighborhoods, hospitals and streetcars. They forbade interracial marriage and erected barriers, including the poll tax, to African Americans’ access to the polls. As the nine-member commission discovered, having combed through old law books that are still not computer-searchable, the concerted legislative efforts of generations of elected officials, determined to maintain a system of racial “purity” in which whites were explicitly advantaged at the expense of blacks, make for sobering reading.
By its own account, the commission’s work is unfinished. It deliberately skirted the politically contentious question of whether to repeal a 115-year-old law, still in force, that forbids localities from moving or removing war monuments, including Confederate statues, which are, for good reason, offensive to many Virginians. It did not consider other laws, much more recent, that may impose disparate and onerous burdens on African Americans who seek to exercise their constitutional right to vote in Virginia — for example, by requiring various forms of voter ID that whites are more likely to possess.
Mr. Northam created the commission after it emerged that his medical school yearbook page featured a photo of two individuals, one dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes, the other in blackface. He admitted, then promptly denied, being one of the figures in the photo, then acknowledged having gone in blackface to a party shortly after medical school.
That may have contributed to his decision to set up the commission, but it had no bearing on the commission’s work. The commission is surely right that “vestiges of Virginia’s segregationist past should no longer have official status.” It’s equally true, as the report states, that those “devastating” manifestations of legalized racism continue “to plague people of color today.” As such, it’s well past time to purge them from state code, and scrutinize the books for more recent examples.