Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring on Sunday night joined a crowd gathered at Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Leesburg to discuss ways to combat systemic institutional racism.
The Healing Virginia program was organized by Loudoun faith leaders. While Herring is a familiar face at such gatherings, this was his first appearance since his revelation that he once dressed up as a rapper that included donning black makeup—a confession that came days after the disclosure of a racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page and his admission he had dressed up as Michael Jackson.
Those blackface controversies, along white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and the more recent outrage over an offensive Underground Railroad exercise in a Loudoun elementary school provided the context for the community meeting, which was aimed to identify actions that Herring and other political leaders could take to better combat racism.
The two-hour session was led by NAACP Loudoun President Pastor Michelle C. Thomas and Rizwan Jaka of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society. Topics included questions of how to get an African-American judge elected in Loudoun’s courts, how to strengthen hate crime laws and more effectively criminalize acts of intimidation and harassment by the KKK and white supremacists, and how to better teach the history of racial oppression and discrimination in Loudoun schools—including the addition of blackface, among other omissions, to the curriculum.
“The reason racism is still a problem is because it is engrained in America’s systems,” Thomas said. “We can’t just chant. We can’t just march and protest. We must move our marching and protests to the place where change happens, which is new policies.”
Herring, who sought to expand hate crime laws during the recent assembly session, sat in the front row as reform options were discussed.
While there have been calls for Herring, Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who has been accused of sexual assault by two women, to resign, Herring found support in the Leesburg audience.
“It takes a great deal of courage not only to face mistakes, but also to face the people and that is a testament to your character, sir, and I knew that you would do it—not that you could do it. A lot of people can do things, but they won’t,” Thomas said of Herring’s appearance.
“I realized at some point that no one is stepping down. If no one is stepping down, then all we ask is for you to step up. And it’s impossible to step up if you don’t know what the issues are, if you don’t know the concerns in the hearts of the people that were so offended by the things that have happened,” Thomas said.
Herring said the conversations about racism occurring around the commonwealth could set the foundation for significant progress and help others learn the lessons that he has.
“I am so very sorry that something I did so long ago when I was 19 has added to and contributed to the pain and disappointment,” Herring said. But soon after that incident in college, Herring said he “broke through a lot of the insulating forces that, at the time, had kept me from seeing the existence of white privilege and the feelings and experiences of other people.”
In recent weeks, Herring said he’s done a lot of listening about how to move forward.
“I’ve heard that Virginians really want to take this moment, this focus on race in Virginia right now, to try to make something good come of it,” he said. “There is a lot of work to be done. I think from the conversations we’ve heard tonight, we can all agree on that.”
The conversations that have been stirred recently illustrate the need to “address the institutional and systemic racism that we have, whether it is in our healthcare system, in our education system, in our criminal justice system, and our other institutions of power,” Herring said.
Much of the conversation on Sunday night focused on the school system. The session was attended by Superintendent Eric Williams and School Board members Joy Maloney (Broad Run), Tom Marshall (Leesburg) and Chris Croll (Catoctin). Last week, the School Board voted to create an ad-hoc committee to promote equity throughout the division, and Williams told the crowd that he and his staff are committed to working with the community to address concerns.
Among the highlights of the two-hour program was an exchange prompted by a caution by former delegate Randy Minchew that legislation and criminalization, alone, would not stamp out racism and discrimination.
“In attacking racism, there is only so much that laws can do,” Minchew said.
“While we can put laws on our books, the changing of our desire to banish racism from our country is something we’re going to have to do out of our own hearts. In other words, the legislature is never going to be able to get rid of racism. The way we get rid of racism is by confronting it, not giving it quarter, and by looking deep in our own hearts and realizing that all of us suffer from some elements of that.”
Leesburg Councilman Ron Campbell, who also serves as executive director of the Loudoun Freedom Center, said he was impatient with politicians who have been too slow to roll back racist policies government leaders put in place to begin with.
“We are asking the same people and process that created the problem in the first place and we want to go back and say, do the right thing,” Campbell said.
Campbell said there shouldn’t be a need for a Civil Rights Voting Act as a constitutional protection against politicians seeking to deny minorities the right to vote. “We’re doing double work and still spinning our wheels trying to solve the problem. Racism we know is the cause, but it also has some really real challenges about how we get rid of it. If we start with our policies and really speak the truth to those policies, I believe we can move something forward for our generation and the next generation,” he said. “We have to continue to ask our politicians no matter who we elect—and who we elect does matter—to engage in our community, not just down in Richmond, because that is where the real work gets done.”
The forum also included a discussion of the use of blackface.
From the audience, Lisa Kimball recalled a time when two young tennis players dressed up as Venus and Serena Williams, including black makeup, during Halloween. At the time, she congratulated the girls on their tribute to the top athletes and strong female role models, but in light of the recent controversies, she wondered whether her reaction was wrong.
“I praised them. I thought they were adorable. They wanted to be these strong, brilliant, successful women. Was I wrong? How do I respond to that?” she said.
Attorney Buta Biberaj, the legal redress officer for the Loudoun NAACP, commended Kimball for reflecting on the question.
“Who doesn’t want to be either of the sisters? That was coming from a good place. But the awesomeness is in the conversation: How would that make somebody else feel? And how do you feel when you’re doing it? I don’t know whether there is a right or wrong answer,” Biberaj said. “That is how we’re going to change things by having that conversation.
Charles Barrett, a psychologist for the school system, said there is a bright line making blackface unacceptable in all contexts.
“In most cases, what we are talking about today is white people coming to terms with [the realization that] not everything is for you, and living in a society in which everything is open to you freely and openly. You can honor Serena Williams. You can honor Venus Williams, but their skin tone and complexion is not for you,” he said. “So, I would say part of the way forward is putting perimeters around how we honor and respect people.”
“Until we embed these practices in systemic policy, justice does not really happen. I think one teacher or one parent doing well for their students or their children is great, but I think the work of justice really is about embedding those individual practices in systemic policy,” Barrett said.
Herring said the high-profile discussions about racism should yield benefits.
“Those conversations that I’ve been having I know are going to continue. I will continue listening and it has been really good to be here in my hometown to hear from friends and neighbors to hear issues that you all are confronting, and what role I might be able to play in helping all of us address those issues, because this is an important moment in time when we have an opportunity to really make a lot of progress.”