Category Archives: Race and race relations

A New, Improved Ken Cuccinelli?

ken-cuccinelliBy Peter Galuszka

Is one-time conservative firebrand Ken Cuccinelli undergoing a makeover?

The hard line former Virginia attorney general who lost a bitter gubernatorial race to Terry McAuliffe in 2013 is now helping run an oyster farm and sounding warning alarms about a rising police state.

This is remarkable switch from the man who battled a climatologist in court over global warming; tried to prevent children of illegal immigrants born in this country from getting automatic citizenship; schemed to shut down legal abortion clinics; tried to keep legal protection away from state gay employees; and wanted to arm Medicaid investigators with handguns.

Yet on March 31, Cuccinelli was the co-author with Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia of an opinion column in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Their piece pushes bipartisan bills passed by the General Assembly that would limit the use of drones and electronic devices to read and record car license plate numbers called license plate readers or LPRs.

Cuccinelli and Gastanaga say that McAuliffe may amend the bills in ways that would expand police powers instead of protect privacy. “The governor’s proposed amendments to the LPR bills gut privacy protections secured by the legislation,” they write. The governor’s amendments would extend the time police could keep data collected from surveillance devices and let police collect and save crime-related data from drones used during flights that don’t involve law enforcement, they claim.

When not protecting Virginians from Big Brother, Cuccinelli’s been busy oyster farming. He has helped start a farm for the tasty mollusks on the historic Chesapeake Bay island of Tangier. According to an article in The Washington Post, Cuccinelli got involved when he was practicing law in Prince William County after he left office.

He would visit the business and get roped into working at odd jobs. He apparently enjoyed the physical labor and the idea that oysters are entirely self-sustaining and help cleanse bay water.

Environmentalists scoff at the idea, noting that as attorney general, Cuccinelli spent several years investigating Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climatologist who noted that humans were responsible for the generation of more carbon dioxide emissions and that has brought on climate change.

Some have pointed out that if Cuccinelli had had his way, he would have helped quash climate science, generated even more global warming and sped up the inundation of Tangier Island by rising water levels.

It will be interesting to see if Cuccinelli intends to rebrand himself for future political campaigns and how he tries to reinvent himself.

Cruz, “Liberty” and Teletubbies

AP CRUZ A USA VA By Peter Galuszka

Where’s the “Liberty” in Liberty University?

The Christian school founded by the controversial televangelist Jerry Falwell required students under threat of a $10 “fine” and other punishments to attend a “convocation” Monday where hard-right U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president.

Thus, Liberty produced a throng of people, some 10,000 strong, to cheer on Cruz who wants to throttle Obamacare, gay marriage, abolish the Internal Revenue Service and blunt immigration reform.

Some students stood up to the school for forcing them to become political props. Some wore T-Shirts proclaiming their support of libertarian Rand Paul while others protested the university’s coercion. “I just think it’s unfair. I wouldn’t say it’s dishonest, but it’s approaching dishonesty,” Titus Folks, a Liberty student, told reporters.

University officials, including Jerry Falwell, the son of the late founder, claim they have the right as a private institution to require students to attend “convocations” when they say so. But it doesn’t give them the power to take away the political rights of individual students not to be human displays  in a big and perhaps false show.

There’s another odd issue here. While Liberty obviously supports hard right Tea Party types, the traditional Republican Party in the state is struggling financially.

Russ Moulton, a GOP activist who helped Dave Brat unseat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary last summer, has emailed party members begging them to come up with $30,000 to help the cash-strapped state party.

GOP party officials downplay the money problem, but it is abundantly clear that the struggles among Virginia Republicans are as stressed out as ever. Brat won in part because he cast himself as a Tea Party favorite painting Cantor as toady for big money interests. The upset drew national attention.

Liberty University has grown from a collection of mobile homes to a successful school, but it always has had the deal with the shadow of its founder. The Rev. Falwell gained notoriety over the years for putting segregationists on his television show and opposing gay rights, going so far as to claim that “Teletubbies,” a cartoon production for young children, covertly backed homosexual role models.

Years ago, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a story showing that the Rev. Falwell took liberties in promoting the school he founded in 1971. Brochures touting the school pictured a downtown Lynchburg bank building with the bank’s logo airbrushed off. This gave the impression that Liberty was thriving with stately miniature skyscrapers for its campus.

Some observers have noted that Liberty might be an appropriate place for the outspoken Cruz to launch his campaign. The setting tends to blunt the fact that he’s the product of an Ivy League education – something that might not go down too well with Tea Party types – and that he was actually born in Canada, although there is no question about his U.S. citizenship and eligibility to run for question.

Hard-line conservatives have questioned the eligibility of Barack Obama to run for U.S. president although he is likewise qualified.

With Cruz in the ring and Liberty cheering him, it will make for an interesting campaign.

Yes, Let’s Investigate ABC Incident


Governor Terry McAuliffe did the right thing by promptly demanding an investigation into an arrest by ABC special agents of a black University of Virginia student that resulted in a head injury requiring 10 stitches. In the racially inflamed atmosphere we live in today, fueled by national news coverage of deaths of young black men at the hands of white police, emotions are running high. Nobody wants this incident to turn into another Ferguson.

On the one hand, Virginians are rightly concerned about the behavior of ABC agents, who caused a furor last year when they arrested Elizabeth Daly, a white University of Virginia student on the mistaken premise that she was carrying a case of beer. One agent drew a gun and another tried to shatter a window in her car with a flashlight. Citizens rightly wonder if last night’s arrest of Martese R. Johnson was a similar case of excess force.

On the other hand, we need to know all the facts. Martin, who was arrested outside a bar at 12:45 a.m., was charged with obstruction of justice and profane swearing or resisting arrest. It appears from news accounts — and, as we know from the UVa rape case, all news accounts should be considered preliminary and incomplete, and YouTube videos can miss important context — that Martin was intoxicated and resisted arrest. He banged his head on the ground when ABC agents took  him to the ground before handcuffing him. “I go to U.Va., you [expletive] racists,” he yelled, as blood flowed from his cut. “How did this happen?”

As with the UVA rape case, we should refrain from speculation on the basis of incomplete knowledge. Let’s wait for the facts to come in before drawing conclusions.

– JAB

Dominion’s Clever Legerdemain

Dominion's Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia's largest air polluter

Dominion’s Chesterfield coal-fired plant is Virginia’s largest air polluter

By Peter Galuszka

You may have read thousands of words on this blog arguing about the proposed federal Clean Power Plan, its impact on Dominion Virginia Power and a new law passed by the 2015 General Assembly that freezes the utility’s base rates and exempts it from rate reviews for five years.

All of this makes some basic and dangerous assumptions about the future of Dominion’s coal-fired generating plants.

It has somehow gotten into the common mindset that the Environmental Protection Agency will automatically force Dominion to close most of its six coal-fired stations.

Is this really so? And, if it is not, doesn’t that make much of this, including Dominion’s arguments for its five-year holiday from rate reviews by the State Corporation Commission, moot?

In June 2014, the EPA unveiled the Clean Power Plan and asked for comments by this upcoming summer. The idea is to have Virginia cut its carbon emissions by 38 percent by 2025. Coal plants are the largest contributors to carbon emissions by 2025.

A few points:

Dominion announced in 2011 that it would phase out its 638-megawatt coal-fired Chesapeake Energy Center that was built between 1950 and 1958.

In 2011, it also announced plans to phase out coal at its three-unit, 1,141 megawatt Yorktown power plant by shutting one coal-fired unit and converting a second one to natural gas. The units at the station were built in 1957, 1958 and 1974.

Mind you, these announcements came about three years before the EPA asked for comments about its new carbon reduction plan. But somehow, a lack of precision in the debate makes it sound as if the new EPA carbon rules are directly responsible for their closure. But how can that be if Dominion announced the closings in 2011 and the EPA rules were made public in June, 2014? Where’s the link between the events?

When the Chesapeake and Yorktown changes were announced, Dominion Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, said: “This is the most cost-effective course to meet expected environmental regulations and maintain reliability for our customers.” Now Dominion is raising the specter of huge bills and unreliable grid.

Dominion has other big coal-fired plants. The largest is the 1,600 megawatt Chesterfield Power Station that provides about 12 per cent of Dominion’s power. Four of its six units—built from 1952 to 1969 — burn coal. Two others built in 1990 and 1992 are combined cycle units that use natural gas and distillate oil.

Dominion has upgraded scrubbers at the units, but the Chesterfield station is the single largest air polluter in the state and one of the largest in the nation.

Another big coal-fired plant is Dominion’s 865-megawatt Clover Power Station. It is more recent, having gone online in 1995 and 1996. It is the second largest carbon emitter in the state.

Then there’s the 600 megawatt Virginia City Hybrid plant that burns both coal and biomass in Wise County. It went into service in 2012.

Dominion had a small coal-fired plant at Bremo Bluffs but has converted it to natural gas.

So, if you add it all up, which coal-fired plants are really in jeopardy of closure by the EPA’s new rules? Chesterfield, Clover or Virginia City?

It’s hard to get a straight answer. In a blog post by Jim Bacon today, he quotes Thomas Wohlfarth, a Dominion senior vice president, as saying “It’s not a foregone conclusion that [the four coal-fired power plants] will be shut down. It’s a very real risk, but not a foregone conclusion.” Another problem is that I count three possible coal-fired plants, and don’t know what the fourth one is.

In a story about the Chesterfield power plant, another spokesman from Dominion told the Chesterfield Observer that Dominion “has no timeline no to close power stations” but it might have to consider some closings if the Clean Power Plan goes ahead as currently drafted.

Environmental groups have said that because of Dominion’s already-announced coal-plant shutdowns and conversion, the state is already 80 percent on its way to meet the proposed Clean Power Plan’s carbon cuts. When I asked a State Corporation Commission spokesman about this last fall, I got no answer.

What seems to be happening is that Dominion is raising the specter of closings without providing specific details of what exactly might be closed and why.

Its previously announced coal-plant shutdowns have suddenly and mysteriously been put back on the table and everyone, including Jim Bacon, the General Assembly and the SCC, seems to be buying into it.

Although there have been significant improvements in cutting pollution, coal-fired plants still are said to be responsible for deaths and illnesses, not to mention climate change. This remains unaddressed. Why is it deemed so essential that coal-fired units built 40, 50 or 60 years ago be kept in operation? It’s like insisting on driving a Studebaker because getting rid of it might cost someone his job that actually vanished years ago.

Also unaddressed is why Virginia can’t get into some kind of carbon tax or market-based caps on carbon pollution that have seen success with cutting acid rain and fluorocarbons.

It’s as if the state’s collective brain is somehow blocking the very idea of exploring a carbon tax and automatically defaults to the idea that if the EPA and the Obama Administration get their way, Virginia ratepayers will be stuck with $6 billion in extra bills and an unreliable electricity grid.

Could it be that this is exactly the mental legerdemain that Dominion very cleverly is foisting on us? Could be. Meanwhile, they continue to get exactly the kind of legislation from the General Assembly they want.

Celebrating an Architectural Classic

bacons_castle

  Bacon’s Castle — history lost in the mists of time

by James A. Bacon

Bacon’s Castle, a 17th-century brick plantation house in Surry County, is vaguely known by Virginians for playing some kind of role in Bacon’s Rebellion, the first rebellion in the North American mainland against the English crown. Despite my passing interest in the conflict, I knew little about the building — other than the fact that the man it was named for, Nathaniel Bacon, never set foot in it.

But the story behind Bacon’s Castle is a fascinating one, I learned this morning during a tour of the building hosted by Preservation Virginia in connection with its 350th anniversary. All Virginians learn the story of Jamestown and its cast of characters from Pocahontas to John Rolfe. We revere Virginia’s founding fathers and the plantation aristocracy from which they sprang. We worship our Civil War heroes (well, some of us worship them). But there is a century-long gap between founding of Jamestown and the glories of Williamsburg about which we know almost nothing. Bacon’s Castle is a window into that forgotten era.

Built in 1665 Bacon’s Castle is one of the most architecturally significant buildings in Virginia. It is the oldest standing brick edifice in the English colonies. It also happens to be the only surviving example of Jacobean architecture on the North American mainland. (Barbados has two surviving structures.) The building was laid out in the form of a cross and it boasted spectacular triple-stacked Flemish gable chimneys. But the “castle” is more than bricks and mortar — it’s a place where history was made.

Preservation Virginia told that story as part of a fund-raising effort tied to the 350th anniversary of the building’s construction. Dedicated to preserving Virginia antiquities, the organization purchased Bacon’s Castle in 1974, made critical repairs and opened it to the public. Sad to say, it’s not one of Virginia’s hottest tourist attractions — it doesn’t exactly rank up there with Monticello, Mount Vernon or Williamsburg — and it’s showing signs of wear and tear. Over and above the flaking window paint and separating wood joints, the structure needs a new roof, repointed mortar and rehabilitation work on an 1820s-era smokehouse and a slave cabin. The total of repair bill amounts to $500,000, but Preservation Virginia hopes to raise $350,000 for the 350th anniversary.

Arthur Allen, a wealthy Englishman, arrived in Jamestown in the 1630s and obtained land across the James River in Surry County, where he cultivated tobacco. His enterprise prospered and by 1665 he completed construction of the building. By 1676 the Allen family’s land holdings had increased to 1,000 acres. Surviving documents listed eleven indentured servants and four African slaves in the household around that time.

Jennifer Hurst-Wender with Preservation Virginia talks about a romanticized stained-glass portrait, circa 1900, of Nathaniel Bacon.

Jennifer Hurst-Wender with Preservation Virginia desribes a romanticized stained-glass portrait, circa 1900, of Nathaniel Bacon.

Allen’s son, Arthur Allen II, was known as one of the wealthiest planters in the colony. The house is said to be the seventh largest in Virginia at that time, and it was possibly the first to have a formal English garden.  (There are only archaeological traces of it now.) Allen cultivated the native Norton grape and was wealthy enough to import from Germany glass wine bottles embossed with his initials. He served in the House of Burgesses and was a confidante of Governor William Berkeley. When the rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon broke out, Allen sided with the Governor.

Bacon, like the elder Allen, was the son of an aristocratic English family, although he apparently left the old country in some ill repute. The father of his bride, Elizabeth Duke, disapproved of the marriage and disinherited them both. Bacon settled in eastern Henrico County, then the Virginia frontier, around 1674. Family connections allowed him entre into the highest levels of colonial society, but he soon came into conflict with Berkeley over Indian policy. The Susquehannock Indian tribe was migrating south to escape the marauding of the Iroquois. At some point the Indians raided one of Bacon’s plantations and killed an overseer. Bacon organized other frontiersmen — mostly small farmers also suffering from Indian raids — and carried the battle to the Indians. That set him in direct conflict with Berkeley, who counseled peace with the Indians.

Nathaniel Bacon -- he was one dapper dresser! Once revered as a revolutionary predecessor to the founding fathers, Bacon now is reviled by progressive historians projecting 21st-century sensibilities into the 17th century, as an anti-Indian racist.

Nathaniel Bacon — he was one dapper dresser! Once revered as a revolutionary predecessor to the founding fathers, Bacon now is reviled by progressive historians, projecting 21st-century sensibilities into the 17th century, as an anti-Indian bigot. Simplistic history forced into a mold. Preservation Virginia tells a more nuanced story.

Bacon then marched on Jamestown, the capital, collecting assorted indentured servants, free blacks, slaves and other disreputable elements, chased Berkeley to a refuge on the Eastern Shore, pillaged plantations and razed Jamestown. Although many historians have portrayed the rebellion in class-warfare terms, the picture was more complicated. While Allen sided with Berkeley, other Surry planters joined Bacon against the Governor, who had raised taxes to defend against the Dutch while neglecting the frontier.

Allen evacuated with Berkeley to the Eastern Shore, and Bacon dispatched some 70 rebels to occupy his home. It was that association that led to the name Bacon’s Castle.

When the rebellion collapsed the Allen family reoccupied the plantation and, like other planters, shifted to a slave workforce. Bacon’s Rebellion marked a turning point in the nature of slavery. Before the rebellion, there was little formal difference in status and rights between slaves and indentured servants. After the rebellion, the industrial revolution began sucking up the landless laborers from the English countryside and fewer signed up as indentured servants. Planters turned to African slaves to work their plantations and codified the law establishing race-based slavery.

Among other notable characters to live in the Allen house was Elizabeth Bray, who married Arthur Allen III. She resided in the house six decades, out-living three husbands as well as her children. She was an accomplished businesswoman, not only running the plantation and updating Bacon’s Castle with a Georgian-style makeover but she lent money to other tobacco planters. She also was a shrewd negotiator. She signed a contract with one of her husbands providing for her estate to be left to her children if she died, but she inherited his estate when he died. Which he did.

Get on down to Bacon’s Castle to hear those stories and many more. And while you’re at it, chip in a few bucks to restore a national historical treasure.

The McDonnell Saga Is Far From Over

maureen mcdonnell sentencedBy Peter Galuszka

Former Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell has been sentenced to 12 months and a day in federal prison, but the GiftGate saga is far from over.

She will appeal as has her husband, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who was sentenced to two years in prison last month. The now estranged couple was convicted of public corruption felonies, making McDonnell the only Virginia governor, past or present, to be convicted of a crime.

The next step is for the former governor’s appeals to be heard at the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in May. The issue is whether so-called “honest services fraud” for which both were convicted, should be interpreted broadly or narrowly.

During their trial, U.S. District Judge James Spencer took the broad approach, instructing the jury that there did not have to be a very strict “quid pro quo” for them to return a guilty verdict. He reiterated his stand on Friday by overruling a slew of motions from the defense relating to the issue.

The appeals could have far-reaching consequences, as I reported with a colleague on Bloomberg News this week. Charles James, a former federal prosecutor who works at the Williams Mullen law firm in Richmond, says the case “could be the next case to further restrict the use” of the honest-services fraud statute.

If the Robert McDonnell’s appeal is successful, then it would have a big impact on his wife, as well as loosen the interpretation nationally of how far “honest services” should go.

If the government is successful, then expect a crackdown on public official hankie-pankie.

At Friday’s sentencing, eight character witnesses described Ms. McDonnell, 60, as an empathetic, self-sacrificing woman who would do anything for her children and husband.

That image stands in marked contrast to the image defense lawyers for her husband painted during the trial. Incredibly, her own lawyers piled on with the idea that Maureen McDonnell was a naïve but abusive woman who hated being First Lady. She was so frustrated with her husband ignoring her for his political career that she got entangled with Jonnie (the serpent) Williams, who ran Star Scientific, a Henrico company that made and marketed vitamin supplements.

Williams gave the financially strapped McDonnells about $177,000 in gifts, loans and trips while the McDonnells set up meetings with state officials to the products of his money-losing firm. Ironically, the main product was Anatabloc, a skin cream, which has since been ordered off the market the Food and Drug Administration.

At the top of this blog, you see a teaser story that the convictions were corrupted by Williams’ dubious integrity. That’s nonsense, of course. Prosecutors use inside testimony, especially in organized crime and drug cases, all the time.

The bigger issue is whether “honest services” means bribery or whether it is a normal part of setting up appointments by public officials to consider projects that might benefit their city, state or country. This will be the key issue in the appeals.

Meanwhile, the soap opera has been weirdly painful, fascinating and entertaining. It’s also been rather crass. The former governor tries to come off like a Boy Scout yet refused a chance to cop a plea in exchange for Maureen not being indicted at all. She was not a public official, but non-public officials have been convicted in the past of honest services fraud.

Both defense teams made Maureen the scapegoat. She was portrayed as a greedy and unstable hustler who brought her husband down.

Before delivering the sentence to Maureen, who gave a tearful, first-time statement asking for mercy, Spencer made bitingly critical remarks of the defense lawyers. “The ‘Let’s throw Momma under the bus’ defense morphed into the ‘Let’s throw Momma off the train defense,’” he said. Ms. McDonnell seemed to be two very different people and Spencer had trouble figuring it out.

Her lawyers had asked for no prison time and 4,000 hours of community service. Federal guidelines could have given her more than six years but prosecutors asked for only 18 months in prison.

Spencer split the difference, mostly because he gave Mr. McDonnell a light sentence. He was more culpable since he was a public official, not to mention a former state prosecutor and the state attorney general.

He cut Maureen some slack, too. By sentencing her that extra day, he gave her the opportunity to get out in only 10 months for good behavior since that’s the rule under federal prison guidelines.

Go South, Young Black Man, Go South

black_business

The South is by far the best region in the United States for blacks to own businesses, and the Golden Crescent is one of the best places in the South — at least if you put any credence in the methodology created by NerdWallet.

The credit card blog has ranked the 111 metropolitan regions with populations exceeding 100,000 according to two equally weighted sets of measures — economic environment and black-owned business success — to determine where black-owned businesses succeed.

Georgia clearly ranks as the best state in the country by these metrics, with Columbus ranking No. 1 on the list, Atlanta No. 3 and Savannah No. 9. But Virginia’s major metros also appear to be hospitable territory, with Washington ranking No. 5, Richmond No. 11 and Hampton Roads No. 13. Remarkably, with the exception of Salt Lake City (No. 19), every one of the top twenty metros are located south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Metros in the West Coast, the industrial Midwest and the Northeast consistently scored dismally.

There are two possibilities here: that (a) the South is more fertile field for black businesses, or (b) the ranking methodology is skewed toward metros with high percentages of African-American residents. The second interpretation is entirely possible, given that 30% of the entire score is based upon “the percentage of black-owned businesses” in a metro area. All other things being equal, a metro area where 30% of the population is black will tend to have ten times the percentage of black-owned businesses as a metro area where 3% is black. A better indicator would be to compare the percentage of blacks who own a business versus the percentage of the population as a whole that owns a business. I tried contacting NerdWallet this morning for clarification but had no luck.

Another finding: The vast majority of black-owned businesses are sole proprietorships — fewer than one in ten actually hire employees. In other words, most are self-employed. Do self-employed people — many of whom are free-lancers — really count as businesses? How do those numbers compare to the rate for the population as a whole? Sadly, NerdWallet doesn’t say. Yet another question: How does the average revenue of black-owned business compare to that of other racial groups? Again, NerdWallet doesn’t say.

As much as I would like to crow that Virginia is great location for black entrepreneurship, I hesitate to do so on the data provided here. This data needs polishing before we can draw any meaningful conclusions from it. If someone is inclined to do the grunt work and submit results to Bacon’s Rebellion for publication, I would be most grateful.

– JAB

Best Region for Hispanics — the Mid-Atlantic

best_cities
Hispanics now comprise 17% of the United States population. In New Geography, Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox ask where in the country Hispanics are faring the best economically. Based on their analysis of the nation’s 52 largest metropolitan regions, it appears that Hispanics are more likely to prosper in the Mid-Atlantic than anywhere else in the country, particularly in Baltimore, Washington and Hampton Roads, although they’re doing pretty well in Texas and Florida as well.

By contrast Hispanics aren’t faring as well economically in older Northeastern and Midwestern cities. If Spanish is your native tongue, you really don’t want to wind up in Providence, R.I., or Milwaukee, Wisc.

One can’t help but wonder… why are Hispanics prospering in the Mid-Atlantic? Is this part of the country uniquely open and welcoming to Hispanics? Given the controversy over illegal immigration in Northern Virginia, that’s hard to imagine. Is the economy far more dynamic than the rest of the country? Certainly not in the past couple of years.

If I had to guess — and this is only a hypothesis — I would bet that the make-up of the Hispanic population differs. I would guess that a larger percentage of Hispanics who reside in the Mid-Atlantic live here legally. As such, they are more likely to be employed in regular jobs, not in the economic shadows, and they might well have a higher level of education.

– JAB

Addressing the Real Source of Voter Disenfranchisement

voter_disenfranchisementby James A. Bacon

While partisans of a particular political party, which shall go unnamed, works itself into a righteous wrath over Voter Identification laws that supposedly threaten to bring back the Jim Crow era, they have been less vocal about the very tangible disenfranchisement of African-Americans created by the denial of voting rights to people with felony convictions. Perhaps it’s too embarrassing to bring up the issue because it was that very same party, in its pre-Civil Rights incarnation as the party of Southern segregation, that enacted those laws in the first place.

But consider: Of Virginia’s 6.4 million citizens of voting-age population, 450,000 have been disenfranchised by their felony status. The laws disproportionately affect black citizens. In 2010, 20% of the state’s voting-age African-American population could not vote as a result of a felony conviction, according to Helen A. Gibson, a University of Virginia civil rights historian, writing in the current edition of The Virginia News Letter.

In “Felons and the Right to Vote in Virginia: a Historical Overview,” Gibson walks through the history of what she calls “felon disenfranchisement” in Virginia in ante-bellum Virginia, the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights era. “Despite recent steps toward reform,” she writes, “Virginia continues to struggle with its legacy of one of the highest disenfranchisement rates in the country.”

But the state has made progress in recent years. Former Governor Mark Warner streamlined the application for non-violent offenders to get their voting rights restored, reducing the period they had to wait before petitioning to get their rights restored. Former Governor Bob McDonnell issued an executive order making 350,000 Virginians convicted of non-violent felonies eligible to have their voting rights restored without the three-year waiting period. Most recently, Governor Terry McAuliffe has reduced the waiting time for restoring voting rights to those convicted of violent felonies and petitioned to have drug offenses removed from violent felonies. (Seventy-two percent of Virginians incarcerated for drug offenses are African-American.) The administrative systems for restoring voting rights has not kept pace with these gubernatorial actions, so voting-right restoration lags.

Here’s what I’d like to know: How many people have been unable to vote in Virginia due to Voter ID disenfranchisement compared to how many have been unable to vote compared to felony disenfranchisement? Maybe two or three hundred compared to two or three hundred thousand? Would it be asking too much to have the rhetoric of outrage directed at the source of greatest injustice?

Police Shootings in Virginia — a Social Injustice?

Protests in Ferguson

Protests in Ferguson. Photo credit: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

As the national debate rages over police killing of blacks, Mark Bowes has conducted some excellent reporting for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It’s easy to argue by media-fueled anecdote, as the United States has been doing for months now. But at some point, we need to look at the numbers. Bowes has compiled a list of all “justifiable homicide” police killings in Virginia between 1990 and 2013. While the numbers do not conclusively settle the question as to whether blacks are being unfairly singled out for state-sanctioned, police violence, they do narrow the parameters of the debate significantly.

According to Bowes, Virginia police have reported 130 people killed by police in “justifiable homicides” since 1990. Of those, 59 were black (45.5%), 70 were white and one was Asian. (The percentages for more recent years, 2000 to 2013, were roughly the same.) The African-American population in Virginia is about 20%.

By the most superficial measure imaginable, then, blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to get killed by police. But the picture changes when  the fatal-shooting ratio is compared to the percentage of violent crimes committed by African-Americans, about 60%. If we’re comparing people who engage in violent crime, blacks are less likely to be shot by police than whites. On the other hand, if we compare the fate of people assaulting law enforcement officers, blacks are somewhat more likely to be killed than whites. The experts quoted by Bowes agree that raw numbers will only take the analysis so far. It’s important to know the circumstances surrounding each shooting.

“Police killings are not random, and we shouldn’t expect killings to be proportionate to the population percentages, but instead proportionate with potentially violent encounters with police,” said Thomas R. Baker, a criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Baker homed in on another critical dynamic. Scholarly research indicates that blacks have more negative views of police officers than whites do, and they are less likely to cooperate with police.

Much of this distrust and dissatisfaction comes from negative direct and vicarious experiences with the police, including media accounts, and has unfortunately become inculcated among many black Americans. At the same time, police officers are not insensitive to this distrust and dissatisfaction, and may enter encounters with blacks on highest alert.

Providing additional training for police likely will have little effect unless accompanied by cultural changes on how police are perceived in the African-American community, Baker said.

Blacks have legitimate reasons, based in history, to distrust the fairness and objectivity of police. The question is the extent to which that distrust is justified today. Those who are committed to the idea of America as a fundamentally unjust society will say, of course, that it is fully justified. By picking a handful of incidents from across a nation of 320 million people, which then are magnified by the media, they can generate powerful images in support of their position.

But anyone can prove anything by cherry picking the data. Colin Flaherty, author of “White Girl Bleed a Lot,” has built a franchise around the documentation of black-on-white crime, most of which is ignored by mainstream media. Does this anecdotal data prove the existence of a black-on-white crime wave? No. We need to see the numbers.

Let us hope that Virginia never descends into the racial turmoil seen in St. Louis, New York, Cleveland and other cities. People of good will of all ethnicities and ideologies, especially those involved in the criminal justice system, need to work the problem described by Baker: Reduce the negative perceptions blacks have of police and reduce the hair-trigger responses of police active in black communities. As long as the negative perceptions of police are continually fed by national media, however, that won’t be easy to do.