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Amid Blackface Scandals, Virginia Black Caucus Talks About Racist Policies


Virginia's state legislature is expected to finish a chaotic session this weekend. State business has been overshadowed by sexual assault allegations against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and blackface scandals that have ensnared Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring. They are all Democrats. Now many African-American lawmakers hope the energy from some difficult conversations about race can help get the state to address what they call racist policies. Ben Paviour from member station WCVE has more from Richmond.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: In 1969, Douglas Wilder became the first African-American elected to Virginia's Senate since Reconstruction. After his election, Wilder went to a dinner where lawmakers broke out in the state song, an old minstrel song called "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny." In a 2015 interview, Wilder described fleeing the event in shock.


DOUGLAS WILDER: So I drove around the city about 45 minutes that night because I just couldn't get myself together. And I said, this is the state song of Virginia? I can't believe it.

PAVIOUR: Wilder's first act as a lawmaker was to sponsor legislation changing the state song. His effort failed, but Wilder says his floor speech had an immediate effect.


WILDER: No one, anywhere, ever sang that song again, period. So what I was trying to say to the people who tried to effect change, you don't have to wait for an army.

PAVIOUR: Wilder went on to become the country's first elected black governor. The Virginia legislature now includes 21 black lawmakers, the most since 1869. Now as the state grapples with the blackface scandals, the all-Democratic Black Caucus wants to use the moment to focus on how policies in the General Assembly affect minority communities. Delegate Lamont Bagby leads the caucus.

LAMONT BAGBY: As you see our members find their voice, you will see them call out things as they see them.

PAVIOUR: Some of their causes are uncontroversial. A package of bills meant to address Virginia's high eviction rates sailed through the General Assembly. A resolution expressing profound regret at the state's history of lynchings received unanimous support. But the Black Caucus has gotten less traction in what is arguably their biggest priority this year, pushing funding for high-poverty school districts, which have less overall funding than wealthier ones. Those inequities date at least as far back as the 1960s and '70s, when the legislature prevented increasingly black cities, like Richmond, from expanding into whiter, wealthier counties. Schools in cities like Richmond effectively stayed segregated and now face crumbling infrastructure. Democratic delegate Delores McQuinn.

DELORES MCQUINN: It predates us, but we have an opportunity - and not only an opportunity, but an obligation - to help get it fixed.

PAVIOUR: Those conversations would have been unheard of throughout most of the legislature's 400-year history, according to local historian and pastor Ben Campbell.

BEN CAMPBELL: The great taboo in Virginia is to bring up the topic of race overtly.

PAVIOUR: That's something that Democratic lawmakers are hoping to change. But the conversations haven't been easy. Here's House Republican Majority Leader Todd Gilbert earlier this week.


TODD GILBERT: For the last week, we have heard, by implication, suggestions that we are racist in some respect or another. And I am tired of it, Mr. Speaker. And if our friends in the Democratic Caucus want to talk about racism, they need to clean up their own house first. And we're waiting for you to do that.

PAVIOUR: State Democrats say they're still calling on Northam to step down. But Democratic delegate Marcia Price says she has no plans to change the topic from race. She says it's time to remake the genteel style of state politics known as the Virginia way.

MARCIA PRICE: 'Cause whether intentionally or unintentionally, the Virginia way has been used to silence voices like mine.

PAVIOUR: Price says with the racist scandals of the past month, the voices of black lawmakers are finally getting the attention they deserve. For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Paviour