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As Katonya Hart stood outside of the House of Delegates chamber at the West Virginia Capitol, a sparkly tiara fastened to her multicolored twists, the energy around her was undeniable.
A floor below, the women of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. moved about in coordinated red outfits, directing people around the building. Activists and policy experts lined up behind tables, eagerly passing out information, as a constant stream of students walked through, surrounded by banners and signs colored red, green, yellow and black. For much of the unseasonably warm and bright February day, it was impossible to go a few steps without passing someone wearing a gold crown, a symbolic support for the CROWN Act, legislation that if passed would ban discrimination based on hair texture and style.
It was Black Policy Day, a day that differed greatly from most others during the 60-day legislative session, with hundreds of Black West Virginians, allies, and young people filling the halls of the Capitol. As Hart, a lead organizer of the event put it, it was a day intended to let Black people know that they have a right to be in the building as much as anyone else.
“I was a person who, until four or five years ago, I didn’t even know what happens up here, and how it impacts my life,” she said. For her, Black Policy Day serves as a first step, a way for people to begin getting familiar with civic engagement, and with a state Legislature that has often fallen short in acting on issues that could help marginalized people.
Katonya Hart, a lead organizer of Black Policy Day. Photo by P.R. Lockhart
For Black activists and organizers in West Virginia, that inaction is indicative of a larger reluctance by the Legislature to address issues affecting Black communities. And that reluctance stands out in a state where Black people make up less than 4% of the population, but face significant disparities when compared to other groups.
When it comes to politics and getting policy passed in West Virginia, “it is a hurtful journey for African Americans,” said Anitra Hamilton, the president of the Morgantown/Kingwood branch of the NAACP.
The struggles behind getting helpful policy enacted in West Virginia is somewhat complicated, in part because the problem is multifaceted. And those advocating for these policies are quick to note that Black communities are just part of a larger body of disadvantaged groups that would benefit from significant policy change in the state.
Here are some of the actions that could help:
In a state that has long struggled with uneven growth, Black people in West Virginia face even more problems than other West Virginians finding well-paying jobs. In its 2020 State of Working West Virginia report, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy noted that Black West Virginians were more likely than white residents to work in low-wage positions and be unemployed. Taken together, this all means that in one of the highest poverty states in the nation, Black West Virginians are some of the most likely to live in poverty.
Photo by Will Price/WV Legislature
The issue has led advocates to call for a focus on increasing labor participation and wages of Black workers in West Virginia, particularly for young Black workers who are more likely to be underemployed or without jobs. Members of the Tuesday Morning Group, a coalition of faith and community leaders based in Charleston, have also used these economic issues to call for the Legislature to adopt an Economic Justice, Fairness & Equity Plan that would allocate $300 million of the state’s remaining American Rescue Plan Act money to local communities for various projects.
But so far, Republican lawmakers haven’t included that plan in any of the appropriations bills moving through the Legislature. Bills to create a task force aimed at addressing issues faced by minorities in the workforce and business leadership, as well as to create a community development equity fund, have yet to clear a chamber.
For many Black activists and organizers in the state, no single area stands out as needing urgent attention as much as health. Black West Virginians have long faced a range of health inequities as well as barriers to accessing care, and mistrust of the medical system due to historical discrimination, that have resulted in them being more likely to have diabetes and other chronic illnesses. When the COVID-19 pandemic began ravaging the state, those issues were amplified, as Black residents were more likely to get sick, and also faced more difficulties in accessing testing. Historically, Black people in West Virginia and nationally have also faced a gap in insurance coverage compared to their white peers though this has decreased over the past decade.
“Name almost any health issue and you can see the disparities between Black West Virginians and their white counterparts in the state and nationally,” said Rhonda Rogombe, a health policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
She notes that lawmakers are making some moves that will help Black West Virginians’ health, as well as other low-income residents, like supporting a proposal raising financial caps for dental coverage as well as a bill that would allow people above Medicaid expansion eligibility to retain coverage by paying a small income-based premium.
Staysha Quentrill (left) is the only Black midwife in West Virginia. Photo by P.R. Lockhart
But in a state where a number of disparities exist, one of the biggest issues is Black maternal and infant mortality, and advocates say that on this issue, they want to see the Legislature doing much more. In West Virginia, Black infants are roughly twice as likely to die before their first birthday than white babies. And Black mothers are also more likely to die in the weeks surrounding delivery than their white counterparts, a trend that is seen nationally.
Despite this, there has been a limited effort to better understand or to work to address the racial disparities at the core of the issue, and the state has not released more data that could help.
“The risk factor [for pregnancies] is not being Black, the risk factor is the racism that you experience while being Black and Brown while pregnant,” said Staysha Quentrill, the operator of Freedom River Midwifery and the only Black midwife currently working in West Virginia.
Quentrill argues that one key way to address the crisis is to empower Black women, both as givers and receivers of pregnancy-related care. She also believes that West Virginia should create a license for certified professional midwives (CPM) in the state to help Black women and those in more rural areas who struggle to access hospitals and prenatal care.
“We’re kind of surrounded by all these states that have these licenses, but West Virginia doesn’t,” she says. “I think CPMs could be a great answer to a lot of our rural health disparities, but definitely for Black and Brown women.”
Members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority table during Black Policy Day. Photo by P.R. Lockhart
This legislative session, some of the most controversial proposals have involved the rights of LGBTQ+ West Virginians, particularly transgender people in the state. Earlier this month, the House of Delegates passed HB2007, which would ban gender-affirming care for minors, even as trans West Virginians often go without medical care due to fears of discrimination. Other bills aimed at LGBTQ+ rights and expression are still potentially on the table this session.
Rogombe of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy notes that the targeting of LGBTQ+ individuals, particularly trans people, is significant. “Directly targeting a marginalized group sends a message,” she said.
And for Black LGBTQ+ West Virginians, that targeting is two-fold, hitting at a group that is part of a minority within a minority.
“Here in West Virginia, we don’t have a lot of representation for the LGBTQ+ community, including within our own community” Kasha Snyder-McDonald, an LGBTQ advocate and the president of the recently-opened West Virginia Black Pride Foundation, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Kasha Snyder-McDonald (left) is an LGBTQ advocate and the president of the recently-opened West Virginia Black Pride Foundation. Pictured with Lauren Jackson (right). Photo by P.R. Lockhart
Because of this, advocates argue that it is crucial that the needs of Black LGBTQ+ West Virginians be uplifted and centered within broader policy efforts.
“We need you to step up for your fellow LGBTQ+ Black children and adults,” Snyder-McDonald said during a rally on Black Policy Day.
As Mountain State Spotlight has previously reported, Black students in West Virginia make up roughly 5% of the student population, but are twice as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled from school. And a 2015 study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that 39 of West Virginia’s 55 counties had racial disparities in school discipline.
But there has been limited action on school discipline issues, with the state proposing additional studies of the matter. While that data would undoubtedly be helpful in better revealing the scope of the issue, it alone won’t actually begin to address the problem.
And the cost of inaction can be severe. “Once a child is marked, it follows that child,” says Hamilton of the Morgantown/Kingwood NAACP, noting that disparities in school discipline play a role in perpetuating other inequities in graduation rates, access to higher education, and ability to enter the workforce.
Hamilton also notes that the current legislative session has also raised other concerns, particularly over what teachers are allowed to discuss in classrooms. The Anti-Racism Act of 2023 is especially worrisome for her as it would limit some classroom discussions of race and would “whitewash history.”
Students gather around the “well” in the Upper Rotunda of the Capitol building. Photo by P.R. Lockhart
“It’s mind-blowing that they would put so much effort into concealing history when it is repeating itself right before our eyes,” she said.
Much like at the national level, there are significant disparities in West Virginia’s criminal justice system, with Black West Virginians overrepresented in cannabis arrests and in state jails and prisons. The state’s juvenile justice system also disproportionately confines Black children and teens. Interactions with the justice system can also affect people’s lives after their incarceration has ended, leading to calls to restore voting rights for people with felony convictions and to “ban-the-box” to help people with arrests and convictions get jobs. A bill that would do that has cleared one House committee, but is running out of time to become law during this legislative session.
And as West Virginia’s correctional facilities face a number of issues, ranging from jail deaths, to staffing issues, those problems are disproportionately likely to affect Black people in the state.
Volunteers with the group The Family of Convicted People table at Black Policy Day. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislature
Black West Virginians are also more likely to come into contact with the justice system through policing, something that Hamilton notes is an area particularly rife with the potential for unequal treatment.
“We want the police to engage with the community and citizens,” she said, noting that community policing is especially important. “We don’t want it to be that the only interaction with the people of Morgantown they have is when they are arresting somebody.”
Ultimately, for Hamilton and other advocates working to help Black West Virginians, policy change is necessary to help some of the most marginalized groups in the state. And in a state where so many communities are struggling, coalition building is a critical step in ensuring that policy is working to help the people who need it most.
“Without laws in place, without policies in place, we know that different institutions can really wreak havoc on disadvantaged demographics,” she said.
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