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A furious controversy in the richest county in America was about race, all right, but not in the way national media presented it. Part one of a series

 

 

Matt Taibbi, 12/10/21

 

Part One: “The Inconvenient Minority.”

November 2, 2021, Election night, town of Sterling, Loudoun County, Virginia. Thanks to a years-long media furor over what one former school official here described through a fatalistic laugh as “all the things,” this wealthy northern Virginia county is ground zero of the American culture war tonight. The nation’s most-watched race this evening is a fight for the Virginia governor’s office between a favored Democrat, longtime Bill and Hillary Clinton aide and oft-flummoxed oratorial liability Terry McAuliffe, and the Republican underdog, an aw-shucks private equity vampire turned earnest education advocate named Glenn Youngkin. The contest between the two will be decided at places like this little polling station, at Lowes Island Elementary School.

Democratic and Republican volunteers flank the school entrance, waving YOUNGKIN – GOVERNOR or MCAULIFFE AYALA HERRING signs while attempting to hand out sample ballots. Voters look in foul moods, meeting most of the pamphlet offers with road-rage stares or no-look, “talk to the hand” pleas for space, with one conspicuous exception. The fourth or fifth time I see the same thing happen, a Youngkin supporter standing nearby comments.

“See that?” whispers Raj Patel. “Another Indian who would never vote Republican before just took the Republican ballot.”

A tall, slim, dark-skinned man in a plain tan shirt and tan corduroy pants is indeed standing in the school entrance, examining a sample ballot pulled with two hands close to his face. He’s either nearsighted or really, really interested. Patel, whose father immigrated from India in the late fifties to work for Bechtel, indicates him with a nod and begins talking about the novel experience of standing in the crater of a smoldering national controversy.

“My sister lives in Pennsylvania. She says, ‘I’m watching the news and they’re talking about Loudoun County!’ And I say, ‘Yeah, who’d have believed it?’ You know, that our county was going to be on national news over this issue.” He shakes his head. “You watch. Indian and Chinese immigrants who typically vote Democratic will vote the other way because education for children is their number one issue. It’s why they came here.”

Patel is one of the switchers. He was “pretty liberal” after graduating from UC-Berkeley many years ago, then steadily became more moderate in his views, which did not mean voting for Donald Trump. “Honestly, I voted for Hillary Clinton,” he says, clarifying that he’s for “common sense,” not being “right-wing” or conspiratorial, “none of that garbage.” Eventually, he returns to the subject of education. “When you start messing with schools, that’s when you’ll get typical Democrats to flip.”

Within a few hours, networks begin delivering the verdict: Youngkin, not long ago down ten points in the polls, is going to cruise to an upset win. Panic commences.

A fascinating feature of modern America is that corporate commentators will sometimes artlessly blab out bald truths in the first minutes of breaking news events, before anyone higher up the chain has had time to cook up counter-narratives. After midnight in this case, CNN’s Van Jones freaks out a panel that includes the likes of Anderson Cooper and former Barack Obama aide David Axelrod, offering a clearly unwanted doomsaying take on the Youngkin vote.

“This is a big deal. These numbers are bad,” Jones says. “These are our voters. These are voters who came to us in 2018. These are voters who came to us in 2020, and have abandoned us in droves in… states that should be in our column.”

The open use of terms like “us” to refer to the Democratic Party on CNN grates, but the rest of what Jones says feels on the money. The Virginia race does represent a significant shift. Since Trump came on the scene, Democrats have dominated the most affluent communities in America, winning all 13 of the richest congressional districts (mostly by wide margins) in 2018 and 41 of the top 50. Republicans as recently as 1992 regularly won over half of these districts. Lately, though, in places where voters have money and college educations, Republicanism has become a stigma on the order of bestiality or syphilis as upscale readers gobble literature like Fuck Trump: An Adult Coloring Book and the blank-paged epic, Why Trump is a Great Leader, leaving Republicans bereft of upper-class arguments and flatlined in their neighborhoods — until now, in enclaves like northern Virginia, where the tide has apparently begun rolling back.

Not that you’d know, however. By the morning after Youngkin’s win, outbursts like the Van Jones bummer-gasm disappeared, as coverage now pitched the Virginia results as a cookie-cutter rerun of a seventy-year-old Dixie segregation story. According to new national legend, the Jim Crow demons of places like Loudoun, a onetime “hotbed of Confederate resistance,” had been so brilliantly revived by a Republican-concocted tinfoil-hat panic over something called Critical Race Theory that it thrust even the unremarkable Youngkin to the governorship. To pundits, there was no doubt what happened. The blithe declaration of CNN legal expert Jeffrey “Zoomin” Toobin perfectly summed up: “It’s about white supremacy.”

This media shorthand — that the furor that helped elect Youngkin is just a repackaged dog-whistle, with Republicans hiding a wide-scale movement against “teaching about slavery and racism” in a Trojan Horse marketing scheme based around a phantom depiction of obscure social justice theory — sounds ominous indeed.

Unfortunately, it’s totally incorrect, which is one reason local conservative organizers have seized on these pundit caricatures with such success. “One of the things that I find most comforting about the last election is that Democrats and Republicans got together to protect the rights of parents,” the highly visible leader of Fight For Schools, Ian Prior, would say to a crowd of triumphant Youngkin-supporting parents a week later. He added: “Education is the new code word for white privilege and white supremacy. That is the most insane thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Blue-leaning analysts may not be impressed by this kind of talk, but they should be. It would later come out that Youngkin gained a 15-point swing versus Trump’s 2020 Loudoun results, mirroring numbers in nearby Fairfax and Prince William Counties, as well as others across the state, even around the country. The reason wasn’t any unsolvable Scooby-Doo mystery, either.

Democrats have traditionally owned the education issue, leading by twenty, even thirty points in polls for decades. But recent surveys have shown slippage to something closer to a dead heat nationally. Among other things, this means Prior is likely right that Youngkin’s win was due to new coalitions of Republicans and defecting Democrats forming over education. These are not necessarily alliances of white voters, either. In places like Loudoun, where roughly a fifth of the population is Asian or South Asian, the reason for at least some of those defections is not so hard to figure, if you bother to ask.

Of course, few asked. The Loudoun mess had a lot to do with race, but it was no simple sequel to old civil rights battles. This was a brand-new tale about multidimensional racial tensions, beginning perhaps with the impatience of affluent intellectuals toward a quiet immigrant community whose chief crime, as ham-handed as this sounds, was believing the American dream. For that offense, they were sentenced to the rudest of awakenings. Loudoun doubled as the ultimate media malpractice story, in which the public across years of salacious controversies was told everything but the most important bits.

If you followed it, you likely heard a series of sensational culture-war flashpoints, including everything from a fight over a new transgender policy to a “runaway slave game” to a viral video involving the arrest of a man whose daughter had been raped in a school bathroom. A lot of these tales turned out on closer inspection to be, factually, almost perfectly opposite to how they’d been portrayed. Up close, the months leading up to Youngkin’s election end up reading more like an Evelyn Waugh satire about high-priced academic hucksters let loose on a small community, followed by a parade of blind Washington Post apostles, recording their heroics on goatskin parchments.

For all those twists, the core narrative was simple. A commonplace fight over suburban tax resources ended in radical reforms that primarily impacted one small nonwhite minority whose story mostly never got told, its members perhaps paralyzed by the irony of watching their complaints dismissed as white racism. There’s no way to understand any of the later Loudoun madness, without first knowing the backstory of the group that essentially started the fire by studying too hard.

 

Ashburn, Virginia, May 8th, 2018. As Loudoun Now put it, “A debate that has been percolating for years in Loudoun County reached a boiling point,” at a boisterous meeting of the county School Board. Because Loudoun’s public hearings would later become the stuff of viral legend, the culture-war version of wrestling GIFs, these old 2018 sessions now look tame in comparison. But they were significant at the time.

In addition to its own prestigious gifted programs, which include a new “Academies of Loudoun” campus as dazzling in its design as any modern liberal arts college, Loudoun has long maintained a contract with neighboring Fairfax County. The area annually sends hundreds of kids to nearby Alexandria’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the top-rated public high school in America.

If you’re looking for a highway directly to the Ivy League (and from there, to the upper class), “TJ” is the most consistent launching pad in the most affluent region in the country. In the three years between 2015 and 2017, students from Thomas Jefferson High produced an absurd 79 graduates from Harvard, Princeton, and MIT alone. In the shrinking opportunity zone that is the modern United States, where debt and privation spread like cancer and even wealthy parents fear their children can’t afford to waste their time having childhoods, the competition to put kids in pipelines to top feeder schools like TJ as early as possible is ferocious.

It’s also expensive. Loudoun taxpayers in 2018 spent $4.3 million to bus 269 children across county lines to “TJ,” which worked out to $17,435 per student, plus an additional $2,074 from each to chip into a renovation plan. Because of this enormous cost, local pols and School Board officials often debated the idea of curtailing or ending the Fairfax contract, ostensibly with the aim of pouring the savings into the county’s own specialty programs, like the new Academies of Loudoun.

For years, however, every time the School Board even thought about cutting back the “TJ” contract — usually in the spring, during budget discussions — they got immediate, voluble pushback from one demographic in particular: the region’s population of south Asian residents, particularly first- and second-generation immigrants from India, many of whom are technical experts from the booming IT-centered regions around Bangalore and Hyderabad (colloquially known as Cyberabad).

In another of the innumerable million-pound ironies in the Loudoun mess, many of these immigrants came to America in flight not just from racism, but from a true white supremacist legacy. Back home, many experienced discrimination from a northern population that looks down upon them, among other things, for having darker skin, an echo of India’s colonial past. Mention “blacks” to some, and they might think you’re referring to them, since that’s an operative slur there as well. “If we were racist, why would we have the south?” a parliament member from India’s ruling BJP party said a few years ago. “Why do we live with them? We have black people around us.”

“One of the reasons a lot of these immigrants don’t want to talk about this, is they don’t like to wear their grievances on their sleeve,” says Asra Nomani, veteran journalist and onetime colleague of murdered reporter Daniel Pearl, and now Vice-President of an advocacy group called Parents Defending Education. “These are people who have been looked down upon for having dark skin. A lot of the kids at TJ, for instance, are darker than black Americans. But it’s something they don’t talk about.”

Many Indian families came to Loudoun specifically with the public schools in mind. They were attracted by the idea of winning their children tickets to affluence denied them by a different caste system, via supposedly open competition for spots in places like TJ or the Academies of Loudon.

“My dad came here in 1960 for his PhD, and that’s the story of so many of our families,” says Nomani. “They faced prejudice, and came here wanting to figure out how to advance through the one thing that they know, which is hard work and education.”

In 1990, according to the Washington Post, Loudoun had fewer than 400 Indian residents. The number would soon be well above 30,000. Beginning in the Clinton years, the area that would come to be known as the “Silicon Valley of the East” began to fill up with Indian engineers and programmers, recruited for work in the region’s many federal agencies on a variety of projects, including the millennium computer bug scare. They became the parents and grandparents of a generation of American-born babies some call the “Y2K kids.” Born in the early 2000s, these are the children now dominating gifted programs not just in Loudoun, but in places all around the country.

It’s impossible to overstate the cultural dynamic at work with such families. Writer Zaid Jilani lives in northern Virginia and works as a tutor there, with Japanese, Korean, Indian, and Pakistani children making up the larger proportion of his students.

“They’re usually not very wealthy, but their parents are first-generation immigrants who typically came to the U.S. to study, and they are very culturally focused on formal education,” he says.

How focused? In 2018 and before, when the admissions process in Loudoun was blind with regard to race or identity and weighted toward quantitative measures like test scores and grades, “Asian kids were completely kicking everyone’s asses,” as one former Loudon school official put it. This was true at both TJ and at Loudoun’s own gifted programs.

Thomas Jefferson High’s population in 2018 was 70% Asian, a staggering number considering that in both Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, Asians are only 20% of the residents. According to the most recent Census data, the rest of the population in Loudoun is 67% white, 8% African-American, and 14% Hispanic. The gifted admissions numbers for Loudoun’s own programs had long been similarly lopsided. More on that in a bit; for the moment, focus on the response at the May 8, 2018 meeting about the TJ contract.

A parade of Indian parents advanced to the podium. Many were soft-spoken men in shirtsleeves who seemed unused to the grandstanding tradition of American public meetings. Local officials routinely massacred the pronunciations of their names when calling them forward, but it didn’t occur to any to take offense, instead offering effusive thanks to the Board before politely listing complaints.

“I came from India twenty years and exactly two days ago,” said a man named Ravinbar Palla with a smile. He described looking up Loudoun from afar and deciding, happily, to choose this “picturesque area.” Palla turned serious as he began to speak about his seventh-grade son.

“If you want to go to TJ, it doesn’t start six months ago, it starts a year, a year and a half ago, even more,” he said, adding in an imploring voice: “He has to build resumes!” Brandishing a paper curriculum, Palla said Loudon’s own gifted programs just aren’t the same. “If you want to study artificial intelligence, you can’t do it at AOS…”

An alarm beeped, meaning his public speaking time was up. Confused, Palla tried to keep going. “So please, don’t…”

“Sir, please,” said Board chair Jeff Morse. “Your time is up. Thank you.”

Palla walked backward, shuffling his papers. Another parent took his place, then another, and another.

“Personally, I think this is a grave mistake,” said Kartik Patel.

“As a parent of a child who has been preparing for this exam for months now, it’s our suggestion… that we should plan the change years from now,” added a mother named Shilpa Shanbhag. Otherwise, she said, “That would be really unfair.”

“We are the richest county in the country, I am sure we can find ways to fund the TJ program,” said Tejas Mehta.

As several former Loudoun officials explained it, such scenes were a nearly annual feature of Board meetings around budget time. The county’s Asian community was not content with mere access to “gifted” programs. They expected their kids to annihilate the standardized testing requirements, get As in all the most advanced courses offered, and continue taking advantage of their county’s unique access to a feeder school feted in national publications as the best of the best. Speakers from this community rarely evinced concern over budget questions and seemed to have a similarly conspicuous disinterest in the county’s long-term goal of building its own version of “TJ,” a tendency that grated on some non-Asian local pols.

The TJ contract presented a dilemma for other groups. Taxpayers invested heavily in the “Academies of Loudoun” program, and there was thinking that clinging to the TJ contract undercut that investment. As then-Board member Tom Marshall later explained, “There are people out there who… do not support us sending our tax dollars to Fairfax County.” It was also a massive expense whose benefits were increasingly redounding to one demographic.

A legend that consistently infected later national coverage of Loudoun was that the old race-blind admissions system was somehow gamed in favor of rich white kids, when anyone familiar with the local numbers knew that a) a lot of Loudoun’s affluent white families long ago began sending their kids to private schools, and b) the county’s remaining white students by at least some metrics were among the worst-performing demographics, and potentially stood the most to gain by eliminating the old system.

Coverage in papers like The Washington Post usually got around these inconvenient facts using astonishingly dishonest phrases like, “White and Asian children together made up the majority of accepted students,” but in both the Loudoun gifted programs and at TJ, the statistics upon closer review told a story whose meaning was impossible to miss.

For instance, Loudoun Schools would eventually be forced to review the data for their own Academy of Engineering and Technology (AET) from the Fall of 2018. They reported that Asian students were 42% overrepresented, African American students were underrepresented by 4%, and Hispanic students were underrepresented by 12%. Meanwhile, “Caucasian students in the applicant pool were underrepresented by approximately 23%,” is how a later report by the Virginia Attorney General’s officephrased the LCPS data.

Results for Thomas Jefferson admissions were different, but still not exactly screaming evidence of white supremacy. The numbers for 2018:

Race/ethnicity          Applied          Percent         Admitted       Percent

White                          870                  27.5                 110                  22.9

Black                           220                  7.0                   10                    2.1

Hispanic                      276                  8.7                   23                    4.7

Asian                           1,633               51.7%              316                  65.2%

White kids certainly fared better getting into TJ than the black or Hispanic applicants, which may reflect a variety of factors from economics to, yes, systemic racism. However, the big picture pointed to an overwhelming dynamic: Asian students not only applied to gifted programs at a higher rate than the other populations, they were also unfailingly overrepresented in terms of acceptance rates. In other words, they were still crushing the testing process relative to all other groups, and showing no sign of letting up, not even having the decency to follow the example of most American immigrant populations by getting dumber with assimilation time.

In the end, the county followed the example of every bureaucracy from the University of California to the New York City School system under Bill de Blasio, replacing race-blind admissions and standardized testing with a new, “holistic,” “equity-based” system that would be described in media in a hundred different ways, but never as what it actually is: a mercy rule to stop Asian kids from demolishing the field.

The group of Indian parents who petitioned the School Board in 2018 would be the last whose worries would be confined to budget proposals. They would soon be introduced to more creative reform ideas designed to severely limit their kids’ ability to go to advanced schools, not just at “TJ” but the once scoffed-at replacement programs at the Academies of Loudoun.

The coming ideas would be a lot harder for these residents to follow than the cost of bus routes. They were about to be introduced to modern American social justice thinking, in the context of a classic example of nut-cutting back-room politics, a juggernaut combination if there ever was one. They had no answer for either dynamic — until Election Day in 2021 when people like Raj Patel finally got to register their displeasure. When McAuliffe stood up in a debate and said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach” — the political equivalent of using a toe to shoot your face off with a shotgun — he may not have been speaking directly to the admissions issue, but it was still a last straw for certain voters.

 

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Benny @bennyjohnson
“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” -Terry McAuliffe Virginia. Remember this tomorrow.

“You can get the best grades, highest scores and you won’t get in,” says Patel, referencing the “TJ” issue. “Of course we want to let in more disadvantaged kids. I get that, being Berkeley-educated. But to do it so dramatically and radically, and without consulting the parents, that’s why you see this pendulum swing.”


These issues aren’t easy. The argument over “gifted and talented” programs, be they in Loudoun or New York, requires asking if these programs really and truly provide higher-quality educations for students who need them. Research on the question is mixed.

After all, what if they don’t work? What if these programs are just a big, inefficient drain on resources from the larger student gen-pop, benefiting a handful of kids with the economic or familial resources to succeed anyway? What if “gifted and talented” programs are really just an expensive (and ultimately ineffective) ploy at keeping the most affluent kids in every district from accelerating flight to private schools? If either thing is true, abolishing such programs might make both fiscal and cultural sense for the bulk of voters.

But there would also seem to be plenty of logic in rewarding immigrant families whose kids consistently bust their asses in class while showing a faith in the public school system native-born Americans often don’t, if they can look up from their super-size bags of Cheetos long enough to think about it. If these aren’t the families who get to thrive in America, what are we about? What’s our pitch to would-be immigrants around the world? Come here, work like mad — and hope for a break?

One can see merit in arguments for and against gifted programs. The problem is, the path Loudoun County ended up choosing represented neither sensible option. They rushed instead to indefensibly crazy-ass door number three, in a seeming conspiracy with all the county’s most uncompromising, irrational, preeningly self-important social arsonists. Future Tik-Tok stars all, they took a small opportunity to amuse national reporters at the county’s expense and rolled it into a flaming hot sun of avoidable civil unrest that continues roaring to this day.

National media figures helped the process along by the least subtle means imaginable. The chief tactic involved pumping the airwaves full of “angry white parent” caricatures and editorials about the evils of racism and white supremacy, deflecting attention from the nonwhite demographic at the actual center of the controversy. Their experiences for decades having been dismissed as a right-wing prop, as a “model minority” whose achievements were paternalistically lauded by conservatives only as part of a cynical argument against social safety nets, Asian immigrants now found that in a changed environment, their successes rendered them politically toxic with onetime political allies in the blue party. “We were the inconvenient minority,” says Nomani. “We didn’t matter.”

By the end of 2018, Loudoun would begin moving toward a slew of drastic changes. In significant part, this would be thanks to a complicated maneuver that involved leveraging a scandal-plagued Attorney General’s office into a sweeping reform settlement, using as a battering ram the “assessment” of an ultra-woke, luxury-priced West Coast equity consultancy imported in the midst of a transparently manufactured media panic. It was an “only in America” kind of tale, and of course, the people who lost out most were the area’s newest Americans. They could compete in the classroom, but as the next installment shows, they had a lot to learn from the rest of the county, when it came to being crazy.


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