The Holy War of Loudoun County, Virginia
In part three of a series. an opposition galvanized by revelations of bizarre school policies finds itself on an enemies list
In their zeal to implement the “Action Plan to Eliminate Systemic Racism” devised by a California consultancy called the Equity Collaborative, the Loudoun County, Virginia Schools seemed to get everything wrong. Like the crew of a hijacked jetliner, they kept trying to win favor with displays of groveling and obedience, but only inspired annoyance and heightened tensions.
One of the Collaborative’s recommendations was that Loudoun “publish on the ‘Superintendent’s Message’ page” a statement “defining and condemning white supremacy.” School leaders hurled themselves into the task with élan, planning a microwave apology for a hundred-plus years of history. In preparation for both a written and videotaped statement, which was to include local African-American leaders like Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall, they asked Loudoun’s NAACP chapter head, pastor Michelle Thomas, if she wanted to participate. Her furious reply denounced the thoughtless demand for emotional labor.
“As victims of racism and discrimination, with its beginnings in segregated education,” Thomas said, “it is unconscionable for the abuser to ask the victim to provide assistance in writing an apology for the abuse.”
Abashed, the county nonetheless made a 14-minute video that appeared almost desperate in its earnestness, though still off somehow — its tone of succinct abjectness recalled the “I’m sorry I caused all that cancer” routine by Kids in the Hall comic Bruce McCulloch. Posting the video triggered a response headline, “Loudoun NAACP Leaders Find School Division’s Segregation Apology Lacking.” Pastor Thomas now blasted the apology as “self-serving,” and, as Loudoun Now explained, “Thomas questioned the timing and asked why the apology… did not include the involvement of community groups such as the NAACP.”
Thomas’s move was a master class in political punking, and surely would have been applause-worthy on that level alone, but for one thing: the Loudoun schools appeared to respond to the criticism by offering to set the Bill of Rights on fire.
Around that time, the school system drafted a proposal — this really happened — to prohibit employees from making “comments that are not in alignment with the school division’s commitment to action-oriented equity practices,” in “on-campus and off-campus speech.” The plan would ban any statements by LCPS employees deemed to be “undermining the views, positions, goals, policies or public statements” of school leadership. Furthermore, all employees would have a “duty to report” such comments. The draft statement even recognized their employees’ “First Amendment right to engage in protected speech,” but went so far as to say such concerns “may be outweighed” by the goal of achieving “directives, including protected class equity, racial equity, and the goal to root out systemic racism.”
The measure would eventually fail, but not before helping rally an opposition movement into existence. In the fall of 2020, a variety of pissed-parent groups, most politically conservative, began to form. With names like “PACT,” “The Virginia Project,” and “Fight For Schools,” they among other things began filing FOIA requests in hopes of a look at the particulars of the new “Action Plan.” Anger was accelerated by school closures. “All the kids got sent home with their laptops, and parents got to see what was really going on,” is how one parent put it.
Not only Republicans objected. Some more traditionally liberal educators and officials who’d welcomed what they expected to be basic “bias training” in hopes of addressing upsetting disparities in discipline especially, were shocked when they first started attending training sessions. Three people contacted for this story cited a video called the “Unequal Opportunity Race.” One school employee described an “‘Oh shit,’ moment,” fearing that “the wrong reaction, or any reaction actually” to the video might result in a reprimand. “Oh my God,” said another. “I just kept thinking, ‘Oh, my God.’” The video shows four track athletes — a white man and woman, a (presumably) Hispanic male, and a black woman — beginning a relay race through American history. The white men pass ever-fattening batons of cash to each other through the centuries, cruising to victory on a Jetsons-style conveyor belt of privilege while sipping from a giant cup marked YALE. The black woman collapses before a brick wall of discrimination reading DEAD END, while the Hispanic racer leaves the track in a floating jail cell after stumbling into a shark-infested tank called STANDARDIZED TESTS. If you could distill How To Be An Antiracist into an edible, this is the movie you’d make while high.
“I think privilege is real, I teach it to my kids,” the school employee said. “But that video is psychotic.” Another commenter felt the problems with the video were subtle: the effort to explain historical obstacles made sense, but ignored the experiences of poor whites and again-absent Asians, and also sent a confusing message by implying current America was still the same kind of impossible steeplechase. Was the final panel about how “Affirmative Action levels the playing field” referencing a remedy for past or current injustices? In an echo of the “Underground Railroad simulation” story, this video had also previously inspired multiple local school controversies, including in Virginia, if anyone had bothered to check.
Much later, in a New York Times story that included another teacher’s critical comments about the video, the school system would say “conservative activists” had “cherry-picked the most extreme materials” to make the program look bad, but the critics weren’t all conservatives.
In fact, the School Board’s one-size-fits-all, Scientology-like hostility to naysayers of any kind would end up becoming almost as controversial as the specifics of the “equity” plan, which as of late 2020 was still far less on the minds of local parents than, say, the county’s hesitancy to reopen schools, an issue that polls later showed was particularly damaging to Democrats among suburban women.
A key figure in the school-closure debate, who would also become central to later culture-war pileups, was a recently elected School Board member. Beth Barts is a character the most gifted fiction writer would struggle to create. Imagine asking a person incapable of learning the rules to Candy Land to pilot a 747 in a snowstorm, and you’re close to grasping what it meant to Loudoun to have Barts in elected office while the county tried to navigate a national controversy.