Last week, the House of Delegates took a final vote on a tax cut bill. In another year, it might have been a wonky discussion centered on standard deductions and tax brackets.
This year -- the year of a blackface scandal that has ensnared Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring -- it was also about race.
Democratic Delegate Marcia Price was among the half dozen members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus who spoke out against the Republican-authored bill. She said it wasn't enough to condemn Northam and Herring and go back to business.
“We were sent here to legislate,” she said. “And so right now, our first step that we can take towards true racial equity is to vote ‘no’ on this bill.”
Price voted against the bill, but several of her colleagues eventually relented after they pushed Republican leaders for more funding in the budget for other priorities, like eviction diversion programs and high poverty schools.
For the black caucus, it’s the start of a long-overdue discussion about how policies in the General Assembly affect minority communities.
The General Assembly on March 3, 1970 (RTD Collection/The Valentine)
“As you see members find their voice, you will see them call out things as they see them,” says Delegate Lamont Bagby (D-Richmond), who leads the caucus.
Local historian and pastor Ben Campbell says all this talk of race is a big departure from the usual conversations in the General Assembly.
“The great taboo in Virginia is to bring up the topic of race overtly,” he says.
Campbell’s book, “Richmond’s Unhealed History,” tells the story of centuries of discriminatory legislation passed by Virginia’s white political leaders, from slavery to Jim Crow laws. Campbell says that while these policies were overtly racist, those politicians considered themselves too refined for that label.
“If you're starting from a position where African Americans are seen as inferior, why do we have to reiterate that every day over 350 year period?” Campbell says. “You don't. It's assumed.”
Campbell says politicians were especially careful to avoid talking about race in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the General Assembly enacted policies that allowed segregation to continue without the ugly label.
Lawmakers prevented increasingly black cities like Richmond from expanding into whiter, wealthier counties, starving them of funding for city services. As white flight intensified, inner cities schools became more segregated, and the General Assembly’s school funding models meant they got less money from the state.
Most of these policies are still around; a report last year from the National Center for Education Statistics found that Virginia was one of six states where the wealthiest school districts got more funding per student than the poorest ones.
Black activists and politicians affiliated with the group Virginia Black Politicos call for Northam to resign in a protest last week. Speakers called for black lawmakers to take the lead in addressing racial inequities. (Ben Paviour/WCVE News)
Campbell thinks most lawmakers these days aren’t fully aware of this legacy.
“But I know that their predecessors knew exactly what they were doing when they put these systems in place,” he says. “The longer these segregationist systems get in place, the less people know there is a segregationist system.”
The black caucus is calling on Republicans, who control the General Assembly, to put in more funding for high poverty schools into the budget. And they’re explicitly drawing a connection to race.
At a press conference last week, Delegate Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond) challenged lawmakers who’d spoken out against racism to put funding behind their rhetoric.
“I think what the last two weeks have crystalized for us is the need for us to have some real conversation and put some real action behind our words when we talk about equity,” he said. “And when we talk about equality.”
Northam included funding for high-poverty schools in his budget and has vowed to fight for racial equity in lieu of heeding calls to resign. But the black caucus still needs to win over House Republicans like Delegate Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) who leads that group in budget negotiations.
Ben Campbell (Ben Paviour/WCVE News)
Jones says he’ll consider ways to fund the black caucus’ priorities. But he says he was elected to serve the whole state, and isn’t specifically looking at racial equity when he writes the budget.
“We look at good public policy, is what we look at,” Jones says.
But some groups say race needs to be brought into more policy discussions. Tram Nguyen is co-director of the progressive advocacy group New Virginia Majority. She says it may be time to shed the genteel, polite style of traditional Virginia politics known as the Virginia Way.
“If it makes you feel uncomfortable, that's not the Virginia Way,” Nguyen says. “I think the Virginia Way is a way of the past and we need to be looking at how we address these issues.”
But with 400 years of tradition at its back, no one is holding their breath that two weeks of scandal will change conversation in the legislature overnight.
“The thing that is really strange right now is that some people who looked at this blackface thing with Governor Northam seem to be surprised that there's racism in Virginia,” Campbell says.