February 25, 2019 News & Press Releases

Tim Kaine: Virginia can turn pain into action

by Sen. Tim Kaine for The Virginian-Pilot

THE CONTROVERSY about the governor and attorney general appearing in blackface as young men is not just about the two individuals. The revelations, their responses, the reactions of Virginians and the commonwealth’s humiliating appearance in editorial cartoons and late-night comedy shows all point to a broader significance to events that might have been passed over quickly in an earlier day.

So much of this is painful. And the questions and principles involved are profound. Racial insensitivity is evil, yet a person can do stupid and evil things then grow and change. How do we balance those two realities?

This question has a particular resonance in Virginia. This year, we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans into the English colonies. They were slaves, first kidnapped from present-day Angola, then captured off a Portuguese ship and brought ashore at Point Comfort (now Fort Monroe in Hampton) in August 1619.

If you look at the conditions of African Americans living here these 400 years, the story is striking. For 250 years, Africans and African Americans in this country were held as slaves. And even those who obtained their freedom, or those born free, were determined by the Dred Scott decision in 1857 to have no rights as American citizens. Virginia was at the center of this, with a General Assembly that created much of the legal architecture of American slavery and slave markets in many of our cities. By 1860, there were nearly 500,000 enslaved Virginians, almost a third of the entire population of the commonwealth.

After a great Civil War to help purge the sin of slavery, African Americans were free but still held as second-class citizens in housing, education, public accommodations, voting and employment. This period of segregation and “separate but equal” lasted 100 years. Virginia played its role in punishing African Americans with Jim Crow, an explicitly racist 1902 constitution, poll taxes, anti-interracial marriage laws and massive resistance to school integration.

Not until the passage of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s did African Americans finally achieve legal equality. And, based on the combined weight of the previous 350 years of slavery and legally enforced discrimination, the last 50 years has not been sufficient to eliminate the immense disparities still affecting African Americans in income, wealth, educational opportunity, criminal justice and so many other areas of our society. Nor has legal equality conquered stereotypes and intolerance rooted in the hearts and habits of so many.

Of course, we feel proud to be part of a Virginia that elected the first African American governor, L. Douglas Wilder, in 1989. So many felt a deep emotional catharsis when the state supported the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, during his two campaigns. Had we worked our way out of our dark past? Had we turned the corner, rejected racism, become a new Virginia? So many of us hoped so and believed so.

But the Bible tells us that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Maybe we became a little too convinced that we had put away the evils of a racist past. And now —with both Virginia’s 2019 Commemoration and a national commission to recognize 400 years of the presence of Africans and African Americans in Virginia and the nation — we find ourselves confronting again what it means that Virginia was the beginning point for slavery in our country, the capital of a Confederacy dedicated to white supremacy, and a place where even today, hateful rallies in Charlottesville or photos of whites lampooning African Americans are an undeniable part our complex tapestry. The events of this month are an ugly reminder of Virginia’s past, but they are also indicative of the racism that still plagues our commonwealth and entire nation.

And so we have to step back and assess where we are on the journey to equality. We need to be honest about the fact that in these 400 years, African Americans have had full legal rights in our nation for fewer than 50. And we need to recognize that we won’t see true equality until deep-rooted racial injustice is wiped from our institutions.

So what can we do about it? We can acknowledge that over the past 400 years, racism has evolved but it is still pervasive in 2019. Those who ignore that fact — celebrants of an imaginary post-racial society — engage in self-exaltation. We can work toward equal access to affordable housing and education funding; close the wealth gap; and address inequities and biases in our criminal justice institutions, just as a starting point. Because if we neglect addressing today’s injustices, we are doomed to be humbled again and again by incidents like the marches in Charlottesville and the ongoing controversy in Virginia. But if we turn the pain of the past few weeks into action, I believe we can chart a path to truly free ourselves from the lingering evils of racism.