Confronting history

Charlottesville City Council should vote Monday to create a human rights commission with enforcement powers

Charlottesville in recent years has tried to confront its troubled racial history. Like many Southern towns, Charlottesville inherits a painful legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. In the 1960s the city demolished Vinegar Hill, a thriving black neighborhood, as part of a misguided urban-renewal effort. City Council in 2009 authorized the formation of a Dialogue on Race steering committee to find solutions to Charlottesville’s race problem. The committee’s ultimate recommendation was simple: the creation of a local human rights commission to address discrimination complaints in employment, housing, public accommodations, private education and credit.

City Council recoiled. In February 2012 it created the Human Rights Task Force to research the need for such a commission. After eight months the task force came to the same conclusion: Charlottesville needs a local investigative and enforcement body — one with teeth.

Dialogue and research are vital precursors to thoughtful political action. Dialogue without action, however, makes for a politics of passivity. City Council Monday will take action — of some kind — after hearing a proposal for a local human rights commission.

Virginia law grants substantive, but not expansive, powers to local antidiscrimination commissions. Local bodies can investigate complaints, hold public hearings and issue subpoenas through the circuit court. Though local human rights commissions created before the Virginia Human Rights Act — such as the one in Alexandria, Va. — can impose fines, Charlottesville’s commission would have no such power. Any teeth the commission would have would be molars, not canines.

After three years of build-up, the commission’s creation hangs in little doubt. The real question is whether Council will grant the body the enforcement powers permitted by federal and state law, or if Council will restrict the commission to an advisory function. To put it another way — will we have action, or just more dialogue?

In 2010 the Charlottesville-Albemarle NAACP chapter received roughly 100 job-discrimination complaints based on race or gender. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received about 50 complaints in 2011. Unfair treatment in housing and employment, however, is vastly underreported. In one representative study of employment discrimination, just 3 percent who said they experienced workplace discrimination took formal action. This research, considered alongside the findings of Charlottesville’s Dialogue on Race committee and the Human Rights Task Force suggest ample demand for a local human rights commission. If the body can gain the community’s trust, it may see hundreds or thousands of complaints a year.

Charges of superfluity — that a local commission would simply do the same work currently accomplished by federal and state organizations — carry little weight. A local commission could resolve complaints faster than the EEOC or the NAACP. These large-scale organizations are strapped for funds and inundated with cases. They are also geographically distant. The nearest EEOC field office, for example, is in Richmond. The distance and inconvenience financially deters low-income workers from seeking assistance. Charlottesville residents might also feel more comfortable reporting complaints to a local body. State law binds local human rights commissions to keep complainants’ identities confidential unless the process goes to a public hearing. In contrast, the NAACP, which has an informal complaint process, is under no such obligation.

Local antidiscrimination bodies have sprung up across northern Virginia. Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William County have reported success in resolving complaints through local enforcement commissions.

With the Dialogue on Race and other initiatives, Charlottesville has taken the initial steps needed to face its racially charged past — but its present wrongs go uncorrected. Urban renewal was a disaster, as displaced Vinegar Hill residents know well. But a local antidiscrimination agency might allow for renewal of another kind. Council in its Monday meeting should follow its task force’s recommendation and create a human rights commission with the full scope of powers permitted by state and federal law.

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