Students Present Findings on Racial Inequality to Governor’s Commission

Research Becomes Exercise in Government Advocacy
UVA Law students

From top left clockwise: Professor Andrew Block, Trust Kupupika ’22, Kelsey Massey ’21, Wes Williams ’22, Juliet Buesing ’21 and Chris Yarrell ’22.

May 28, 2020

It’s sometimes said that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. But a lack of data may actually be failing people of color in Virginia in life-altering ways, adding to the disparities that existing research says negatively affects them.

These disparities, especially in the areas of housing, education, criminal justice and voting, were the focus of a presentation that University of Virginia School of Law students delivered to the Governor’s Commission to Examine Racial Inequality in the Law on May 21.

Gov. Ralph Northam created the commission last year to look at laws and regulations in Virginia that were either explicitly racist, or had negative and disparate impacts on people of color.

Arranged via teleconference, student research assistants working under Professor Andrew Block, who also is the commission’s vice chair, gave a summary of their research and recommendations for building greater fairness into the four societal categories.

The five students worked on the project during the spring semester. Block is an expert on child advocacy and juvenile policy, and director of the Law School’s new State and Local Government Policy Clinic, which officially begins in the fall. He previously served as the head of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice.

Block said that black residents make up 19-20 percent of the state’s population yet are more likely to live in poverty compared to whites, even though “Virginia is one of the wealthiest states in the nation by various measures.”

Kelsey Massey ’21 discussed the lack of stable housing among black Virginians, who are less likely to receive home loans and who may be “rent-burdened” based on income. She said five Virginia cities, including Richmond, have some of the highest eviction rates of all American cities, and that evictions are more likely to happen to people of color.

The problem of housing stability is even more poignant now, she said, with eviction proceedings having resumed last week after they had been temporarily stayed due to COVID-19. She added that, in addition to the need for more data to be collected about minorities and their housing, including as it relates to the pandemic, a potential change in policy to consider would be giving tenants more equal footing with landlords in terms of legal protections.

Juliet Buesing ’21 and Chris Yarrell ’22 worked together on education research. Buesing said de facto segregation of school children, which has occurred by various means in the decades following court-ordered school desegregation, has increased in Virginia in recent years and that students of color fall behind their white peers even before they enter school; these gaps continue through graduation and into college. She recommended that student identifiers, the numbers given to students to track their individual and collective educational progress to ensure anonymity, be provided to younger children in order to track their Pre-K experiences and how they relate to kindergarten readiness.

Given the housing segregation that Massey discussed, and the resulting lack of property wealth in many predominantly black communities, Buesing also suggested that Virginia reconsider its school-funding formula, which is overly dependent on local property taxes.

Yarrell pointed out that many black and Latino students, who already start off school at a disadvantage, tend to fall further behind by the third grade. He described how the teacher workforce in Virginia is about 80 percent white, while students of color represent about half of the overall student population in Virginia. He suggested that the state annually collect and publish division-level data on teacher diversity at each stage of the teacher pipeline, a first step to creating a more diverse teacher workforce that may help promote greater educational success for students of color. 

Students who fail to succeed in school often end up in the justice system, something that Wes Williams ’22, in his presentation on racial disparities in the criminal justice system, referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” While he described gaps in critical information in Virginia’s criminal justice system, he also pinpointed racial disparities at almost every phase of the system, from arrest to incarceration.

“Drug arrests are a problem, given what we know about drug use being so uniform across races,” Williams said. “The general jail population is also vastly disproportionate based on race when you adjust based on 100,000 residents.”

He said the effects of mandatory minimum sentencing had not yet been studied in Virginia, but should be. He also said that prison diversion programs have been a powerful alternative to help people get their lives back on track, but blacks, who are 53 percent of the inmate population, are not being extended the option as often as whites.

He added that state data about how many Latino people are incarcerated is sorely lacking and should be studied further.

Trust Kupupika ’22 focused on voting in Virginia, which, she noted, is expected to become easier based on laws passed this year to remove photo ID requirements, allow early voting and other measures. But black voters tend to experience more trouble with wait times, ID challenges and other problems, she said. And given that one study she cited found that, prior to the new changes to the law, Virginia ranked only behind Mississippi as the hardest stat to cast a vote, she suggested that, “There should be greater efforts to document the voting experience of people of color.”

Building on Williams’ discussion of the disparities in the criminal justice system, she also discussed the Virginia constitutional provision that disenfranchises people convicted of felonies, leaving it to the sole discretion of the governor to restore those rights. She also pointed out that 1 in 5 black adults in Virginia is permanently disenfranchised. She suggested that the governor shouldn’t be the only person in Virginia who can restore voting rights, given the uneven nature by which governors have applied the power, and proposed that the commission consider recommending that the state constitution be amended to address this problem.

Block closed the presentation by noting that, despite discrepancies between black and white residents in Virginia on a number of levels, Latino residents are the ones who seem to be hit hardest by COVID-19, accounting for 44 percent of documented cases and 33 percent of hospitalizations.

But he said racial disparity broadly also appears to be a big issue with the pandemic.

“It’s reflective of all the other problems we talked about and should be viewed through the same lens,” Block said.

At the end of the presentation, commission members, including UVA Law grad and University of Richmond law professor Hank Chambers ’91, expressed their appreciation for the students’ efforts. (Michael Herring ’90, former Richmond Commonwealth’s attorney and current partner at McGuireWoods, is also a member.) Block took off his professor’s hat for a moment and expressed his gratitude in his official role.

“I want to thank you for helping us move things forward,” Block said.

Commission Chair Cynthia Hudson, who previously served as Virginia’s chief deputy attorney general, added, “Your passion for the subject matter seems to shine through.”

The research and recommendations from Block and the students launched the second phase of the commission’s work. The first phase included identifying old acts of the General Assembly that contain racially biased language and recommending their repeal, something that took place during the most recent General Assembly session.

Block said the work was a dry run for what his fall clinic will be, in part.

“The commission, like many, lacks dedicated research and support staff, so the students who served as my research assistants for this project, and some of those who will be in the new clinic, will fill this important role,” Block said following the commission meeting.

Yarrell said it was a project he was proud to work on.

“The legacy of state-sanctioned racism in the Virginia code is one that continues to directly impact the lives of black and brown people across the commonwealth,” Yarrell said. “As a black man and first-generation law student, having the opportunity to support the commission’s important work was truly an honor. I look forward to continuing to work alongside Professor Block and the commission to help redefine and reimagine laws that further advance equity and justice for all.”

View PDF of the Student Presentation

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