By Tom Perriello
Progress can be scary for some. We saw that firsthand this weekend with the racist demonstrations in my hometown of Charlottesville. Dozens of white supremacists evoked painful memories of Virginia’s dark history with the KKK and racial violence. What made this protest so jarring is that it showed our state at a crossroads between its past and its future. Virginia was the birthplace of both American democracy and American slavery. The same state that elected the nation’s first black governor was also once the Confederate capital. Each generation of Virginians must decide which legacy defines us here in this great commonwealth. Fortunately, Virginia has recently become a source of great progress. Generations now are speaking to say Virginia will be at the forefront of justice, liberty, and equality for all.
We have seen that progress is winning. We have become a more inclusive and just state than at any point in our history. We have become a more diverse state, and we are a stronger state culturally and economically because of it. But we continue to face deep, persistent issues of racial inequality and injustice.
In Virginia today, the median net worth of an African American family remains one-eleventh that of the average white family. We continue to see disproportionate rates of incarceration and inequities in education funding for communities of color. But Virginia continues to push back against that and demand to be, once again, at the forefront of justice and equality.
We’ve seen that push from community leaders and elected officials across the Commonwealth. We also saw it in 2016, when we were the only southern state, the only former Confederate state, to reject Donald Trump in this last election – and we rejected him an in overwhelming fashion. In Charlottesville this weekend, we saw that the people who want Virginia to be an inclusive state far outnumbered those who want to raise the torches of hate and division. So we must stand strong and understand this is not just a community-by-community fight but a fight that involves the entire Commonwealth. Now is the time for us to figure out how we can come together and heal old wounds. We cannot heal them by acting like they did not exist in the first place; we must address them directly.
Throughout my career, I have worked in many countries ravaged by the violence of civil wars and past atrocities. I have seen that the countries that emerged strongest from those periods are those that made a deliberate effort to come together and heal. Having spent more time as a peace negotiator than as a politician, I have found that we need to call out racism where we see it. We must talk openly about the structural barriers of discrimination, even when those conversations are uncomfortable. The same lessons I learned in Africa would serve us well here at home. The commissions on racial healing and transformation achieved great success in Africa, and I think we would benefit from one in Virginia. A commission that brings communities together honestly to talk both about how we see our history, and how we see our present. Taking this step will require state action, and that includes how we remember our history, which is why it is time to retire Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday.
As Confederate general Robert E. Lee said, “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” A couple weekends ago, Richard Spencer and his band of white supremacists did more than display disgusting ignorance at its worst, they participated in a harmful retelling of Virginia’s past. Will our generation be at the forefront of democracy, or racism? The Virginia I know – the Virginia that I grew up in – doesn’t celebrate hate and bigotry. We stand against it. We come together and fight because we know we are a society of inclusion, not division. We are a people that out of many are one. It is enshrined in our national seal and I know it is in our hearts to value and celebrate our differences rather than fear them.
How we recognize our past says a great deal about our future. The Virginia we choose to remember will shape the state that Virginia becomes. I believe the vast majority of Virginians across the Commonwealth want to be defined by a bright, vibrant future that keeps us at the forefront of opportunity and liberty for all – that leaves no race or region behind. I think that we can do that by engaging, as many other countries have, in how we bring people together in a commission of this kind.
Tom Perriello is running for the Democratic nomination in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election.