Learning from Tragedy

In 2017, a group of UVA deans and other members of the University community offered recommendations in the wake of the Unite the Right rally. Three years later, Risa Goluboff, dean of the law school, spoke with Dean Ian Solomon about what the group learned and how our nation has evolved.

Has our country—and has the University of Virginia in particular—changed since August 2017? 

Three years ago, hundreds of neo nazis and white supremacists, some of them having expressed the intent to start a race war, gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue at the center of the city. They marched through the Grounds of the University of Virginia and met with counter-protestors downtown in a violent clash. One white supremacist drove his car into a crowd, killing a peaceful demonstrator and injuring many others. 

A strong sentiment permeated Charlottesville after the rally. “We were very clear: They are not us,” said Risa Goluboff, dean of the UVA School of Law. “Their values are inimical to our values.” But it also became more evident than ever that Charlottesville wasn’t as racially equitable or diverse as it could be, she said. A civil rights historian and legal scholar, Goluboff chaired the Deans Working Group, which offered recommendations for how UVA might respond. She described the group’s work as “a look in the mirror.”

“The recommendations we made were really about who we are,” she said.

During the latest installment of Batten Expert Chats, Goluboff was interviewed by Batten’s dean, Ian Solomon, who recently took part in a similar effort. Two weeks ago, the Racial Equity Task Force offered a series of bold recommendations to UVA administrators. Two key inquiries drove the conversation between Solomon and Goluboff, as well as the questions they received from the audience: Has anything changed since three years ago? And, as Solomon put it, “What do we do to make sure that we're not, three years from now, having another task force saying the same things?”

According to Goluboff, the first need the Deans Working Group addressed was an urgent one: the safety of the UVA community. Although the group made a number of policy recommendations, one of the most important concerned “time, place, and manner” restrictions—or lack thereof—for gatherings at the University. While protestors in the city of Charlottesville must file for a permit, no such rule existed on Grounds. “We had always been completely open to free speech with literally no regulation at all,” Goluboff said. “And that meant that 300 armed white supremacists intent on violence could come at 10 o’clock at night and walk by dorms.” 

UVA’s “robust free speech policy” remains, she explained, but the University adopted a new notification requirement at the group’s recommendation. Outside individuals and groups who wish to protest on Grounds must notify the University of their plans and comply with University policies regarding expressive activities. 

Although the fears of white students, faculty, and staff were largely assuaged after it became clear that white nationalists and nazi sympathizers would no longer target Charlottesville, for the many of African Americans on Grounds, “the violence reverberated with larger and more enduring feelings of not belonging fully,” Goluboff said. 

In response to these concerns, the Deans Working Group suggested a climate survey and made a variety of other recommendations to increase racial diversity and equity, including scholarships, professorships, and a committee that would evaluate the cultural landscape of the University, including portraits, statues, and the names of buildings.

Goluboff acknowledged that the group did not achieve all of its goals. Still, she noted, the University has made progress on diversity through a variety of initiatives, such as the creation of the Equity Center and the decision to provide a living wage for all UVA employees, a demand that had been part of the community debates for 40 years.

When it comes to the national conversation on racial equity, Goluboff added, she’s heartened by what she sees as a major shift since 2017. “I found it really frustrating that not only on August 11 and 12, but for some time thereafter, it felt like the white supremacists had captured the narrative,” she said. Now, however, “we’re in a place where there’s an agenda being set by anti-racists, and there’s a response to that agenda.”

When Solomon asked how we can avoid the need to create similar task forces in the future, Goluboff highlighted the uniqueness of our cultural moment. The call for immediate institutional accountability made by Black Lives Matter distinguishes it from many social movements of the past, she argued. She’s been inspired by some of the reforms she’s seen happen in police departments and believes that we will see major changes to our criminal justice system as well. 

“And what about healthcare and voting?” Solomon asked. “You’re optimistic?”

“I’m a little more agnostic,” Goluboff replied. “I’d like to think we’ll see major changes in democratic systems and healthcare, but I don’t see those yet.”

“I hope our students hear your answer and realize how much work they have to do,” Solomon said.

Still, in Goluboff’s view, it’s important to remember what has changed. “I don't mean that as an excuse. I mean it as a kind of push,” she said: “We can achieve change, and we will achieve change.” At the same time, much more work remains. “Racial inequity is built into our country,” she added. “I don't think there's going to be a day when we say, we're done.”

In response to a question from Batten professor Gerald Warburg about how we can ensure that recommendations from committees like the Deans Working Group and the Racial Equity Task Force are actually implemented, Goluboff argued that they have to be applied in both a centralized and a decentralized way. What’s happening in policing right now can serve as a helpful example. “There are tens of thousands of police departments all over the country, and they have enormous authority over their own operations,” she said. “So that means you don't have to wait for a state government or federal government to act; your police department can act on its own. There are so many that are not doing anything. But there is a lot of change happening in many, many police departments.”

Solomon agreed. He ended the conversation with a call to action.

“I want to suggest that everybody listening here, like every police department—like every academic department, every sorority and fraternity, every student organization—figure out what they're doing to be anti-racist in the actions that they take. This is your moment,” he said. “Don't wait.”