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Sorry Politics

Virginia's history of disenfranchisement is nothing new.



Being a Virginia politician means routinely having to say you're sorry.

Sorry for that whole mess with the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, especially the part where a trace of non-Caucasian blood made marriage to a white person a felony.

Sorry for the eugenics movement and the sterilization of some 8,000 Virginians deemed to be “mental defectives.” (And, please, can't we just forget that whole Nazi fascination with the Virginia eugenics statute?)

Sorry, sorry, sorry for Massive Resistance and the closing of the Prince Edward County schools from 1959 to 1964.

Sorry, it goes without saying, for the work of the Committee on Law Reform and Racial Activities, which forced civil rights luminaries such as Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson to fight trumped-up disbarment charges during the late 1950s.

Sorry for the 21-Day Rule that — until an innocent man turned up on death row (oops) — gave even those convicted of serious crimes just a three-week window, after conviction, to introduce new evidence of innocence.

And sorry, we suspect, a few years down the pike for bending over backward to deny gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people the full protections of the law.

What is it that makes the dominant Virginia political class so eternally determined to be on the wrong side of history and social change?

Yes, thankfully, Gov. Bob McDonnell has done the right thing by speaking out against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation — even if he didn't do the righter thing of urging lawmakers to add sexual minorities to the long list of groups protected by the Virginia Human Rights Act. 

Ability to sue in state courts, McDonnell suggests, is unnecessary because the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives individuals relief in federal courts against discrimination. But, if the Virginia law adds no real benefit, why have it? And, given the long and documented history of societal bias against sexual minorities, why — other than prejudice itself — exclude them from a laundry list of protected classes: race, color, religion, national origin, gender, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status and disability?

Virginia's ignoble history of isolating, and sometimes persecuting, those outside the mainstream reached a crescendo with passage in 1924 of two laws that still haunt the state.

The Racial Integrity Act, which prohibited mixed-race marriages, retains national notoriety as the law struck down by Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court's 1967 decision ending anti-miscegenation laws. A so-called Pocahontas exception to the act allowed persons with up to one-sixteenth Indian blood to be labeled white.

On the same day in 1924, the General Assembly also passed an act providing for the sexual sterilization of individuals deemed to be what it called mentally defective. In the landmark 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell, the U. S. Supreme Court upheld that law. The Virginia statute became a model for other states, providing legal cover for more than 60,000 involuntary sterilizations nationwide.

Although the practice has long since been discredited, the court's decision has never been overturned. Equally infamous was the legislature's 1956 special session that prescribed a way to close public schools rather than accept racial integration. Eventually, schools closed in Warren County, Charlottesville, Norfolk and Prince Edward County for periods ranging from months to years.

Borrowing from the U. S. House Committee on Un-American Activities, Virginia legislators of the era also passed a set of seven laws aimed at vilifying and even destroying the careers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People lawyers who dared to challenge the Massive Resistance laws in court.

Do more recent efforts to marginalize sexual minorities rise to that level of venom? Perhaps not. But there can be no dispute that a legislative majority has voted consistently to deny privileges and protections gradually becoming available in other states.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli stunned Virginia colleges recently by advising them to drop anti-discrimination policies involving sexual orientation, due to his interpretation of state law. Tellingly, he also provided a count of legislative rebukes. The legislature has rejected the words “sexual orientation” in its nondiscrimination statutes 25 times since 1997, he said.

And then there's the matter of various votes banning civil unions or even partnership contracts between same-sex couples, all leading up to a constitutional ban on gay marriage earlier in the decade.

Ironically, one such debate was going on inside the Capitol on the same day in 2004 when former Gov. Mark Warner was outside, on the south portico, signing legislation benefitting the former students who lost years of education during the Prince Edward County school closings.

Two years earlier, Warner presided over another ceremony, this one apologizing for the state's participation in the eugenics movement. “We must remember the Commonwealth's past mistakes in order to prevent them from recurring,” he said.

Nice sentiment, but not everyone's listening. And that's just plain, well, sorry.

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