CHARLESTON, W.Va. — One of the candidates for West Virginia governor says a photo of state Corrections trainees saluting like Nazis is unacceptable — but also a symptom of broader discrimination issues that need to be addressed.
“Anyone who wants to pretend racism, sexism, homophobia and class discrimination are gone are living in a fantasy world. The question is, are we going to come together and fight back for all of us?” said Stephen Smith, a Democratic candidate for governor.
“Our outrage is daily. It should be constant. That’s the only way we’re going to get the change we need. We need to be working on this 365 days a year, not just when a disgusting photo emerges.”
Instead, Smith said during a telephone interview, state leaders have focused on controversy over the photo, rather than the conditions that led to it.
“Something happened and they rush to say how horrible it is, and as soon as they possibly can they go back to doing the same stuff,” Smith said.
“Black people, working class people, the underrepresented are not surprised when these things happen because they see it every day.”
The photo of Basic Training Class 18 of the state Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation created a firestorm two weeks ago when it was made public.
The class was concluding training to work in state prisons and jails. The official end-of-class photo depicts people in uniform raising raising their arms straight, most with outstretched palms. The state seal is below the photo, which is labeled “Hail Byrd,” an apparent reference to an instructor’s last name.
State officials say three from the class were fired with 30 suspended and firings pending. An investigation is under way.
At a press conference last week, incumbent Gov. Jim Justice called the actions in the photo unacceptable. But he indicated he does not believe it’s indicative of any broader problem.
“I do not think we have a ‘cultural’ problem,” Justice said.
Sen. Joe Manchin put out a statement saying whoever participated in the photo should have no place in state or federal employment.
“It is unacceptable and should not be tolerated whatsoever,” stated Manchin, D-W.Va. “This is not the West Virginia I know or grew up in.”
Smith’s campaign for governor says the state needs a longer attention span — and more specific policies — to promote greater acceptance in West Virginia society.
The campaign last week put out an antidiscrimination platform with specific policy proposals. It’s the only campaign, so far, with a platform aiming at discrimination issues.
Smith’s campaign did not establish the antidiscrimination policies in direct response to the photo controversy. It was already in the works and is a product of dozens of town hall meetings across West Virginia.
The Smith campaign, called “West Virginia Can’t Wait,” intends to put out policy proposals on 32 topics. Three have been released so far.
“People who are tired of politicians who just show up for the cameras when something goes wrong,” Smith said.
“We’ve been working for the past year for concrete, detailed plans, the words of which were contributed by thousands of people at town halls. We want a government that works for people instead of lobbyists, that works for everyone no matter your skin color, gender, sexual orientation or class.”
Under one of the proposals, state courthouses and police stations would be required to track rates of arrest, prosecution, conviction and incarceration by race. Jurisdictions that demonstrate persistent bias would be given technical assistance to reverse those trends — risking state funding if they fail to address it.
Similarly, schools would be required to track rates of discipline, suspension, bullying and preferential treatment across various demographics. If bias is apparent, the schools would be provided help to change, again risking funding.
And state offices would be required to track hiring rates across various demographics — with the same carrot and stick approach.
“Almost every level of government in West Virginia suffers from under-representation of working class people, blacks, latinos, under-representation of women and so on,” Smith said. “We want a government that actually reflects the people of our state.”
The campaign also proposes a $10 million Civil Rights Fund to advance the interests of under-represented communities in West Virginia. And it would establish an Office of Representation aiming “to have the most representative state government in the country.”
And Smith’s campaign proposes a West Virginia Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would seek to remedy the effects of historic racism. For example, that could include increased financial support for West Virginia’s historically black colleges.
The campaign says the price tag for these initiatives is $20 million. It proposes paying for that through the revenue of legalizing marijuana.
There are more platform items, too.
The campaign proposes protections for employment and housing based on sexual preference or sexual identity. And the campaign proposes banning “conversion therapy” as well as passing additional protections against hate crimes.
And the campaign proposes bolstered policies on issues like equal pay and family leave.
“We want this to be the best place in the country for women and valuing the work that women do,” Smith said.
Smith says the policy proposals are aimed at bringing West Virginia’s citizens together, instead of dividing them.
“We know it because we’ve had to do it before. This is the site of the bloodiest labor conflict in American history, and it happened when people who were taught their whole lives to fight each other decided instead to fight the institutions who were profiting off of their pain and their work,” Smith said.
“This is not some feel-good pie in the sky plan, this is pragmatic and rooted in our history.”