By Mark R. Herring
Four hundred years after America’s original sin of slavery commenced on Virginia’s shores, we find ourselves in a moment of renewed focus on race. I and many others are wrestling with how to turn the pain and embarrassment of scandal, caused in part by a revelation about my past, into an opportunity for honesty and progress.
I don’t want to claim any authority to speak on these topics or speak over those who have been and continue to be harmed by systemic racism, but over the past few weeks I’ve heard from Virginians that there may be a way to use my position and my personal history to help spur conversation and action.
I believe that the path to real equality requires us to be truthful about our history, to confront that legacy and the way that racism still manifests itself today, and for each generation to make a real commitment to lifting up all our citizens, especially those who have been held down or left behind.
The fact is, our society remains replete with structures that not only limit opportunity and perpetuate injustices, but also keep us separated from one another and insulate white Americans from having to confront the history of racism in this country and the realities experienced by people of color.
When I was growing up in Northern Virginia in the 1970s, I remember white and black neighbors being friendly and getting along with one another, but in many ways we lived in two different worlds, and there was hardly ever an opportunity for meaningful conversation about race, history, and ongoing discrimination.
I suspect that experience was common at the time, and remains so in many communities to this day.
I know from experience that this residual segregation perpetuates and entrenches unhealthy divisions in our society, rather than bridging them.
As I acknowledged a few weeks ago, in 1980, when I was 19 years old and in my second year of college, some friends and I dressed up and donned wigs and brown makeup to perform a song at a party. This showed a deep lack of awareness and understanding. My use of blackface was a dumb, cruel, and racist action that dehumanized people of color, and minimized a horrific history of exploitation and oppression. I am deeply sorry for the pain it has caused, especially to members of the African-American community who have placed their trust in me.
Soon after that incident in college, I thankfully moved beyond the insulating forces that had blinded me to the realities of white privilege and the experiences of others. I grew and matured, and became more conscious about considering and empathizing with others.
I hope that my journey and my record in public service show that we can each grow, and change, and move beyond our own biases and blind spots. Serving as Virginia’s attorney general has afforded me the incredible opportunity to work affirmatively to address the inequities and systemic racism that we know exist in our criminal justice system, in our election processes, and in other institutions of power.
I’m really proud to have worked with community leaders to begin reforming our criminal justice system by expanding implicit bias training for law enforcement and pushing for overdue improvements to drug policy, re-entry, and the cash bail system. We’ve worked to address the rise in hate crimes and white supremacist violence; to protect the rights of women, immigrants, and the LGBT community; and to protect access to health care and the voting booth.
We’ve made progress that we can be proud of while still recognizing the long and difficult road that lies ahead.
The poverty rate for African-Americans in Virginia is 18.3 percent, compared to 8.8 percent for white Virginians, and majority African-American neighborhoods in Virginia suffer from high eviction rates at four times the national average.
Our population is 19 percent African-American, but 58 percent of prisoners are African-American, and from 2003 to 2013, arrests of African-Americans for marijuana possession increased 106 percent in Virginia.
There is still a significant educational achievement gap between African-American and white students, and the percentage of African-Americans across the country without access to health insurance is about four points higher than white Americans.
These and many other disparities cannot be ignored or denied, and they are within our power to solve.
In order to be a truly thriving, successful commonwealth, we must finally own an honest accounting of our history, confront the sins of the past, and work to understand and rectify inequities and systemic racism that we know persist today.
Let’s not lose this opportunity. Let’s make it a moment for honesty and progress. I’m ready to do my part.