Lamont Bagby: An agenda to build a more equal Virginia

EARLIER THIS YEAR, my friend and colleague Del. Jay Jones took to the floor of the Virginia House and gave a heartfelt statement about how racism impacts our commonwealth and our country today.

The speech gave words to the generations of struggle and hurt that define being black in America, particularly in the South.

It offered a personal understanding that the impacts of slavery, segregation and systemic discrimination aren’t relics of the past. They are being felt acutely in black families and communities at this very moment.

Jones’ speech and the controversy that prompted it inspired many white Virginians (including one who writes for this newspaper) to ask about tangible policy steps we can take to combat systemic racism and its impacts on our commonwealth.

That is the right question to ask. However, I hope the people asking can understand why so many black Virginians are frustrated that it took a scandal involving our governor and attorney general to begin a discussion on fixing problems that have plagued our communities for generations.

I felt prompted to write this column, on behalf of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, to answer those questions and advance this important conversation. Our membership and General Assembly members of all races come to Richmond every year with proposals to build a more equal and just Virginia. And every year, many of those proposals fail to advance.

I am hopeful that Virginians who come to this conversation take a fresh look at issues like educational inequality, unfair housing policy, criminal justice reform, health care and many others and decide that this is the moment to act.

Every member of the VLBC came to Richmond this year with legislation aiming to break down barriers to success for the communities we serve. Below is a sample of those ideas. These examples are not a comprehensive agenda for racial reconciliation, however passing them would represent substantial progress and improve life for every Virginian, especially Virginians of color.


• Raise the minimum wage, as proposed by Sen. Rosalyn Dance and many of our colleagues. The importance of raising the minimum wage is particularly striking for families and communities of color who have faced barriers such as under-resourced schools and discrimination in the job market.

• Make the Earned Income Tax Credit fully refundable, as included in the governor’s proposed budget. The EITC creates opportunity for low income families of all races by providing relief from taxes on food and other products. This proposal would provide an economic boost in struggling communities.

• Limit driver’s license suspensions to driving-related offenses, as proposed by Del. Cliff Hayes. There are a million Virginians whose licenses have been suspended partially or solely because of unpaid court fines and fees. And as the Legal Aid Justice Center has found, this particularly hits black Virginians who are stopped by the police more often and are, on average, less able to afford court costs: “Black people make up only 20 percent of Virginia’s population, but receive nearly half of the orders of suspension for unpaid court debt.”

• Increase support staff in Virginia’s public schools, as proposed by Del. Delores McQuinn and Sens. Dance and Jennifer McClellan. The suspension rate for black students was 3.8 times higher than for Hispanic and white students. Support staffers, such as school counselors, are crucial for proactively identifying student behavior challenges, and implementing evidence-based alternatives to school exclusion.

• Expand access to the ballot box by allowing Virginians to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day. I proposed this legislation this year to eliminate unnecessary barriers to our democracy, which all too often affect minority communities and the elderly disproportionately.

It is important to remember that many of the challenges black communities face are the product of discriminatory policy decisions that leaders in Richmond made throughout our history. Solving those problems requires a new set of policy decisions and the courage of leaders from every walk of life and every part of Virginia to step forward together.

If we are serious about healing the damage caused by slavery and Jim Crow laws, we must respond with real, tangible action. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus is ready to build a better Virginia for all.

Del. Lamont Bagby represents the 74th District in the Virginia House of Delegates and chairs the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. He lives in Henrico County.