How Virginia laws affect women: Racial inequity
By Keya Vakil
June 19, 2019

Check out the rest of our series on how Virginia laws affect women here.

Virginia has had a difficult few years when it comes to issues of race. From the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 to this year’s blackface scandals, there’s been no shortage of headlines around racial justice in the Commonwealth.

But what those headlines may not tell you is just how deep the issue runs.

Virginia, like most of America, has a racial inequity problem, and in many cases, this inequity disproportionately affects women.

Black women earn 59 cents for every dollar a non-Hispanic white man earns and are roughly three times as likely as white mothers to die during or near childbirth.

79% of black mothers are also the key breadwinners in their families, compared to only 48% of white mothers, making Virginia’s lack of paid leave a huge contributor to racial inequity.

There’s also the fact that 17.9% of African-Americans in Virginia live in poverty, compared to only 8.5% of whites, and that Virginia’s state legislative maps were recently redrawn because they were racially gerrymandered to dilute the votes of African-Americans.

This attack on black voting rights isn’t limited only to the drawing of district maps.

Virginia’s criminal justice system disproportionately imprisons African-Americans, as there are five times as many African Americans in prison as whites, according to the Sentencing Project.

It doesn’t just end with the loss of voting rights while in prison, either. Virginia is also one of only four states whose constitution permanently disenfranchises citizens with past felony convictions. This means that even once released from prison, felons are legally unable to vote, unless the state’s governor explicitly restores their voting rights.

As of 2016, there were 271,944 African-Americans who were disenfranchised, meaning that 1 in every 5 blacks in Virginia could not vote.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe tried to use a blanket executive order to restore voting rights to over 200,000 disenfranchised Virginians, but was blocked by doing so from the state Supreme Court, which said restoration needs to take place on a case-by-case basis.

This setback didn’t stop McAuliffe, who went on to individually restore voting rights to over 172,000 citizens, nearly half of whom were black.

There’s been some progress on other issues, as well.

The General Assembly voted in April to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid court fines and fees. The measure will reinstate driving privileges for more than 627,000 Virginians, nearly half of whom are African-American, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center.

The General Assembly also passed a bill this year to tackle maternal mortality and Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced he wants the state to eliminate the racial disparity in maternal mortality rates by 2025.

Northam also recently signed an executive order that eliminated Jim Crow era minimum wage laws and announced he would veto all future mandatory minimum sentencing bills, which disproportionately harm African Americans.

But larger issues remain.

The General Assembly passed a tax relief bill despite critics’ concerns that it would actually widen racial inequity in the Commonwealth.

The tax law was also criticized by the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for failing to expand the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low-wage workers.

As Samantha Waxman, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote, “an EITC expansion would have reduced racial inequities in income since the state’s low-wage workers are disproportionately African American, in part due to historical racism and ongoing job discrimination.”

Had lawmakers expanded the state’s EITC, about 385,000 low-income workers and their families would have been able to keep more of their income to pay for necessities like child care.

Republicans in the General Assembly also blocked HB 2121, a bill from Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) that would have codified the state’s commitment to reducing the disproportionate pre-trial jailing of black Virginians.

The state’s gender wage gap and poverty also persist, as does its lack of paid leave, and these inequities hit black women the hardest.

2019 shows there may be a glimmer of hope, though, despite the blackface scandals. In fact, the scandals may have actually helped re-center the issue of racial equity in Virginia.

In response to his scandal, Gov. Ralph Northam said he would dedicate the rest of his term to solving the state’s racial injustices.

“There are ongoing inequities to access to things like education, health care, mortgages, capital, entrepreneurship,” the governor said. “And so this has been a real, I think, an awakening for Virginia. It has really raised the level of awareness for racial issues in Virginia. And so we’re ready to learn from our mistakes.”

Only time will tell if that’s true.

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

Related Stories
Share This