Wilder on racial reconciliation, policing and the rights of the rehabilitated

L. Douglas Wilder
Gov. L. Douglas Wilder

A powerful symbol and a voice that commands attention, L. Douglas Wilder shattered racial barriers in 1989 when he became the first African American elected governor of any state. Today, at age 89, Wilder is razor sharp and physically fit, thanks to an Army calisthenics regimen that he has maintained since the Korean War. He’s also a regular fixture at Scherer Hall, where he guest lectures at the school named in his honor.

We sat down with him to talk about the civil unrest ignited by the police killing of George Floyd, the removal of Civil War statues in the one-time capital of the Confederacy and the urgency of addressing systemic racism.

Q: You’ve made it clear in recent months that you are unmoved by purely symbolic gestures of reconciliation, stating in a recent interview that “this was no damned time for [you] to be happy” in response to the removal of Richmond’s Confederate monuments. What did you mean by that?

A: None of the progress that has been made — whether it was my election as the first African American governor or the election of President Obama — has been made in perpetuity. By all indices, African Americans are still negotiating for the right to be treated fairly and equally in this country.

The so-called cure to these ills, we are told, is reconciliation. But the problem with reconciliation and its politics is that it requires, by definition, that the parties in dispute come together on a set of facts and agree precisely on what it is that they must do — and, very often, that people of color acquiesce in some way before the historical wrongdoing can be acknowledged. So the question becomes: Is the framework of reconciliation a path for real change?

As long as we continue to live in a state and a nation in which those in power are unable or unwilling to confront the incontrovertible fact that white supremacy has been passed on through our institutional veins, from generation to generation, the American vision of a more perfect union will prove illusory.

Q: Is this a tipping point, both for race relations and American democracy?

A: The people are motivated, but I don’t know that the leaders are. The clearest obstacle to systemic change is very often the individuals that many of us have fought to elect to bring about such change. Too many of those in office have been heretofore unaccountable.

I have the highest standards for those who purport to represent the interests of those who’ve been denied. We didn’t elect them to reconcile for the purposes of reconciliation or self-preservation; we elected them to demand what is right and to criticize what is wrong. At all levels and in both parties, too few of our elected officials are doing their jobs.

Q: What can and should the federal government do to address police brutality?

A: Well, look at what they did. Since the Clinton administration, the federal government has been supplying local police departments with billions of dollars’ worth of military weaponry, like grenade launchers and armored tanks, at little cost. It never fails that if you follow the buck, you’ll find the problem. And in this case, it is the federal government behind the disturbing images that have emerged of police in riot gear confronting peaceful protesters against police brutality.

The clearest obstacle to systemic change is very often the individuals that many of us have fought to elect to bring about such change.

- L. Douglas Wilder

Despite this country’s rampant history of racialized police brutality, I do not believe that the majority of people want to disband the police. I think they mean that what passes for policing in this country has to change. I’m not a Johnny-come-lately to this issue. As a state senator, I introduced the bill that would become the state’s first-ever legislation requiring that all police, regardless of locality or jurisdiction, be required to participate in mandatory uniformed training. I did this because I had seen firsthand the perils of a police force guided by patronage. As mayor of Richmond, I worked closely with the city’s police chief to create training that would strengthen the preparedness of officers, partnering with institutions like VCU to develop forward-thinking academies. Together, we adopted a community policing model that increased trust and reporting
among residents.

That said, there are clear and pernicious examples of racism and accountability among police. My experience, both at the executive and local level, is that there is no panacea. There has to be a compact between police and the communities they protect, and that takes time and accountability.

Q: In most countries in the European Union, and in disparate countries around the world, people vote while in prison. Due to the systemic inequalities that you outlined previously, Black Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. Given the disproportionate representation of African Americans in the prison population, should the voting rights of those currently serving time be restored?

A: I would argue against the idea that the citizenship of a felon in the United States can actually be “restored.”

We live in a country in which ex-felons are expected to reintegrate into society despite nearly insurmountable levels of ostracism and employment discrimination. And so I ask, what does it mean to enfranchise an individual who has been deprived of the ability to support himself or his family? We need to confront a system and the culture that permanently marginalizes those who have served their time, both as individuals and as a class. 

I would also add that we need to hold elected officials accountable for their positions — past and present on these issues — and to look past superficial or timely positions on criminal justice reform. Whether that’s former Gov. Terry McAuliffe on due process rights or presidential nominee Joe Biden on the 1994 crime bill.

Q: There are many institutions that you might have lent your name to. Why VCU?

A: Several reasons. The primary reason being that I’m a native of Richmond, Va., who felt I had a degree of personal history and experience to impart on an organ of information that in my view is so vital, both to the commonwealth and the nation. I likewise believed that my role as a distinguished faculty member would afford me the freedom and independence to continue to speak what I believe and say what I’ve got to say without compromise. I’m grateful and thankful to be a part of an institution at the vanguard of social justice and public leadership.

Q: What gives you hope?

A: One of the things that gives me hope is that many younger people are asking the right questions. They’re demanding more of their peers. They’re demanding more of those who say they represent them and those demands are being made across the board — of both parties, by all races and of all groups. Walk the walk, don’t talk the talk. Unfortunately, there’s been too much talking. We need results. We need examples of leadership. Leadership is a tautology. It defines itself. Get up front and do it. And if you do it, I’ll follow.