Editorial: Slavery commission needs time

·3 min read

The commission that’s evaluating the lasting legacy of slavery, segregation and racial discrimination could make a real difference in the lives of Black Virginians who have been treated unequally for generations.

With so much potential, and so much at stake, it’s important that the commission should have the time it needs to get things right. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic has robbed the commission of nearly a year of what was supposed to be its two-year existence.

So the General Assembly should have no problem approving the commission’s request for extra time past the original end date of July 1, 2022, as well as the resources the commission will need to do a thorough job.

Yes, a lot has happened recently to raise our collective awareness of what slavery and its lingering effects have meant for the United States — and for Virginia in particular. Efforts to understand the hard truths of our history are gaining traction. At historic sites and parks, in schools and across society, people are beginning to look past the familiar, romanticized notion of our history and consider the many ways we have failed to live up to our stated ideals.

We need to hear these truths.

Such reconsidering of the realities that shaped the society we have today are tough but enlightening. Here in Hampton Roads and Virginia, where the first enslaved Africans arrived in the colonies, where many revered leaders were slaveowners, and where the Confederacy has long been idealized, facing the past is particularly important and sometimes particularly difficult.

We also need to build a better future.

The Commission to Study Slavery and Subsequent De Jure and De Facto Racial and Economic Discrimination Against African Americans, though a part of this broader effort to face the past, is not just more of the same. History is important, because it helps us understand ourselves and how things come to be the way they are. The commission hopes to use its understanding of history to focus on the present and the future, and to think of ways to make things better.

The commission has been working to understand in detail the ways that slavery and its aftermath — segregation and racial discrimination — have affected and continue to affect Black people in Virginia.

Members are looking not just at the past, at slavery and the Jim Crow era and the days when schools and other institutions were legally segregated. They are also examining how discrimination persisted for decades through laws and officially sanctioned politics — de jure — and through accepted practices — de facto.

Those evaluations potentially extend into many areas of life as commission members consider how discrimination has affected such things as housing patterns, access to health care and child care, financial opportunities, education and employment, and access to such basic needs as grocery stores. The commission’s work could yield important insights into why, for example, COVID has taken such a disproportionate toll on Black communities, or why so many Black people live in deteriorating neighborhoods.

Such insights will feed the commission’s next major effort: to publish its findings and, even more important, make concrete recommendations for state legislators to consider — recommendations for practical ways to make things better.

Hampton Roads, fortunately, will have a prominent voice in that effort. Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, has been chosen to head the subcommittee that will come up with those specific recommendations for lawmakers.

The hope is that the commission can propose practical ways to improve conditions for individuals, families and communities. Thoughtful legislation could spur changes that will help Virginia offer better opportunities and meaningful equality for people who for too long have been neglected or harmed by the commonwealth’s laws and customs.

If we confront and understand history, and then take steps to correct what’s wrong, we can make Virginia’s communities stronger and better for everyone. The commission that’s dealing with the legacy of slavery is working to make that happen.

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