Why Loudoun County Matters
If you’re not a subscriber to Matt Taibbi’s Substack newsletter, you missed a fantastic deep dive into the controversy over race and schools in Loudoun County, Virginia. Brace yourselves: Taibbi reveals that the national media botched the story, imposing its preferred narrative (“white supremacy”) to describe why voters in that upscale Democratic county voted for Republican Glenn Youngkin in this fall’s gubernatorial race, over Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Turns out it had a lot to do with people of color going off-script to protect their kids. At the beginning of the story, Taibbi is standing at a poll on election night:
“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.”
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.
Here is a fact that I have never read anywhere else in coverage of this story: that some of the strongest protesters against the woke-ification of Loudoun County schools were dark-skinned immigrants from southern Asia who came to America to escape racism, and succeeded professionally:
In another of the innumerable million-pound ironies in the Loudoun mess, many of these immigrants came to America in flight not just fromracism, 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, a direct 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.”
Boy, does that ever resonate with me. My parents are white, of course, but they were both born into rural poverty. The only reason my father got out of it was through hard work and education, which became possible for him through the postwar GI Bill. He was murder on my sister and me about our educations, exhorting us with the passion of an immigrant father to study hard and make good grades. My father had his prejudices, but a good one, in my estimation, was the way he judged people on the basis of their willingness to work. He was an old country white dude from the South, but he flipped in a single afternoon on the subject of the presence of Latino immigrants in our parish when he hired a man from Guatemala to do some brush clearing for him, and he saw how hard the man worked. For my dad, a strong work ethic was everything.
What Taibbi found in Loudoun County was a situation in which Asian kids were blowing everybody else out of the water on the admissions tests to the advanced public high school:
However, the big picture pointed to a more overwhelming dynamic: Asian students not only consistently 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 everyone 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.
It’s anti-Asian bigotry at work — but that fact screws with the media narrative (“white supremacy”), so it was suppressed.
Taibbi goes back to 2018, to discover the roots of the Loudoun crisis. The local NAACP had for decades been pushing Loudoun, which had a repulsive history of anti-black racism, to use race-blind admissions practices, but had suddenly flipped, and demanded race-aware admissions practices, and to grant admissions to black students even if they wouldn’t have qualified under race-blind policies. Why? EQUITY! Here’s Taibbi:
Burke also spoke. “We are requesting that Loudoun County admit 20% of African American applicants to the Academies of Learning for the 2019-2020 academic school year,” she said. “We are requesting that you appoint an independent team of outside professionals.”
The school administration would soon do just that. It’s hard to look at the document record and conclude anything but that under a blizzard of negative headlines, with leaders like Thomas calling for the heads of people like Superintendent Williams, the school system buckled, tossed a few gym teachers under the bus, and green-lit a full-tilt outside diversity audit as a way to ease political pressures. Some local political figures who initially welcomed what they thought would be a healthy course of “unconscious bias training” to address issues like hiring inequity soon found themselves in shock. Within a few months, the Loudoun schools were transformed into a Boschian hellscape of penthouse-priced equity consultants, who “saw race everywhere” to degrees so far beyond even the most demented Fox News fantasies that the corpse of Roger Ailes almost sat up in surprise.
A teacher I spoke with for this story, not based in Virginia, put it like this:
“Education is dominated by consultants,” she said. “They were former teachers, but they decide they actually want to make money, so they leave and then they start these companies.”
These high-priced consultants have a great gig:
Almanzan and his company preach a diversity training gospel that’s increasingly popular with organizations ranging from Amazon to Goldman, Sachs to the Pentagon. They describe a pervasive, psychologized conception of racism that is so deeply entrenched at both an individual and a societal level that it can never be eradicated, only treated — constantly and by credentialed experts, of course.
One of the ideas they suggested to Loudoun school officials was creating an informant network of students of color who would report to the authorities experiences of racism. In other words, they suggested turning kids into spies on each other, to root out ideological non-conformity.
Taibbi takes us deep into Tom Wolfe territory, with the Loudoun County Public School system producing a cringey “apology video” for past racism. They asked the local NAACP chief to participate, but she indignantly refused to do the “emotional labor” of helping this white-dominated system atone. Later, when the video came out, the same woman denounced LCPS for declining to include her in the video. The school educrats responded by trying to make it illegal for any LCPS employee to criticize the school system’s equity efforts. The activist role of a newly elected school board member, Beth Barts, escalated affairs. Taibbi describes Barts like this:
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.
It’s true! The stuff that lunatic tried to get away with beggars belief. But she could count on a sympathetic media to take her side, and report in either a biased way, or outright lie, about what was really happening in Loudoun County. Taibbi continues:
Loudoun was also very much a story about transformational changes on the blue side of American politics. Fifteen or twenty years ago, the Tanner Cross story would have had big-city ACLU lawyers stumbling over one another to come defend the controversial speech of a small-town teacher. In 2021, the ACLU wrote a brief in opposition to Cross. FOIA was another progressive legacy, having been created in response to the persecution of accused communists in the Eisenhower years, while standardized tests had been progressivism’s tool for helping Jews and Catholics break into the Ivy Leagues. What we called “progressives” once were now becoming something else, and the composition of their opposition was as a result also changing.
This saga was about so much more than Critical Race Theory, yet in the coming months of intense national spotlight between June and November, “CRT” became the national media’s sole explanation for everything that happened there. Invocation of the decades-old academic theory, papers like the Post explained, was the “new Trump,” the latest in fake news scammery (Barack Obama, in campaigning for McAuliffe, even described the controversies as “fake outrage”). It was all, the Post said, rightist hokum that had been “weaponized” by a population whose real problem was anxiety over an “influx of families of color,” since the county that was “85 percent White in 2000” was “barely 60 percent White in 2020.” Many outlets made this same point, by the way. Most failed to mention that the bulk of that demographic change came from the 750% rise during that time in the county’s Asian population, whose members of course made up a significant part of the opposition to the school policies. It was impossible to make it through a paragraph of most of these national accounts without hitting a bluntly provable lie.
Again, the point in spending so much time on the other parts of the story is to underscore that whole ranges of people here, of multiple races and political persuasions, would have been angry for a dozen serious reasons even if the term “Critical Race Theory” never came up. The punchline is that as a point of fact, the national press got even this wrong. The “Action Plan to Combat Systemic Racism” did contain heavy doses of CRT, or CRT-inspired thinking, or at least that’s what the plan’s own local advocates believed (Barts and the Antiracist Parents Group constantly referred to the “anti-CRT” enemy, for instance). It was also what many traditionally liberal press outlets initially reported, not that it particularly matters.
The significance of “Critical Race Theory” instead became that the national framing of the Loudoun story around the idea of it as a giant ruse, constructed around an imaginary racist phantasm, became the crowning insult that ended up altering the balance of power in the state. This in turn led to the boffo ending: total humiliation for everyone responsible, but too late to repair the fractured county.
There’s a lot more. Taibbi goes on to explain that the Democratic establishment and the national media are lying to themselves and to everybody else when they describe what happened in Loudoun County as a white supremacist phenomenon. In fact, it involves privileged people — many of them non-white — who normally vote Democratic, but who rebelled against the insane woke policies of the school board, and against the school board’s authoritarian, profoundly un-American attempts to silence opposition. I was not a subscriber to the paid portions of Matt Taibbi’s Substack, but after a friend sent me Taibbi’s four-part report on Loudoun County, I bought a one-year subscription, to fund real journalism like this. I hope you too will subscribe.
The Taibbi dispatches are yet another example of why you cannot trust the mainstream media when it comes to reporting on anything related to culture war topics. Some conservatives like to think that the media intentionally lie about these things. I think this is not true. I believe that most journalists, especially those under 40, genuinely believe their own propaganda. They are like a team of reporters from Fundamentalism Today being sent to New Orleans to cover Mardi Gras. The hypermoralization of journalism in the younger generation of journalists has been a catastrophe. When trying to tell the complex truth of a story causes one to police oneself and one’s colleagues for wrongthink, and to shut down curiosity, then what use is journalism?
Matt Taibbi is no rational person’s idea of a conservative, but he renews my faith in old-school journalism. He — and Bari Weiss, at her Substack, a showcase for independent journalists — show that it really is possible to do good work in this field. You just have to be free of the ideological confines of the institutions. I recall back in 2003, being at a national convention of opinion journalists and editorial writers, my first time there. At the opening reception, I found the other conservatives in the hall; there were about four of us, versus hundreds of liberal colleagues. One of the conservatives, a woman who worked on an editorial page out West, prepared me for what was to come: get ready, she said, to hear a few days of spirited meetings in which everybody will speak as if they were tribunes of truth out to defend the defenseless and take stands for righteousness. In fact, she went on, most everybody here is an off-the-rack liberal who cannot bring themselves to grasp that they might be wrong about anything.
She was spot on, I found out. I later got permission from my boss to quit that professional association, because in my view, it was a sham. So many liberals and progressives accept it as a dogmatic truth that they are on the side of the angels. It blinds them to the messiness of the real world. As we have seen in Loudoun County — and as Taibbi’s reporting highlights — woke ideology prevents Democrats from recognizing how the world is changing around them, and how people whose interests they believe themselves to be advocating for are beginning to see them as hostile to their family’s best interests.
If Republican lawmakers had any guts and vision, they would exploit this anti-woke feeling, and come up with policy proposals to fight it, and to return to old-fashioned American values of rewarding hard work and achievement, and creating a system that does that. But will they? Or are they so embedded in the elite networks, where living by the lies of wokeness is so endemic that no one dares to criticize it for fear of being called a bigot, that they cannot find their voice?
The first non-Trumpy Republican who can come up with a compelling anti-woke message, along with credible anti-woke policy proposals, and attack wokeness as a betrayal of the promises of America, will win the presidency — and do so by winning over a significant number of immigrant voters who have had enough of this nonsense.
UPDATE: A reader comments:
As an Asian American immigrant parent in Loudoun-adjacent Fairfax County, Taibbi’s reporting has been nothing short of cathartic. Finally, a leading journalist centers the story on our oft-ignored communities, the “inconvenient minority” that flouts the black-white, victim-oppressor binary now popular in the American left. We hold heterodox views on many issues — for example, are largely supportive of a national health care system and increased legal immigration, but also support stricter policing — but education matters more than any other issue. It’s why we forego the luxuries typical of other American families — frequent meals out, vacations, new cars every 4-5 years, etc.
The fact is that Asian Americans are succeeding in college and average income IN SPITE of the persistent anti-Asian discrimination from mostly white liberals (but also wealth white conservatives). It would be one thing if equity policies for elite education actually improve the lives of the most disadvantaged — no matter their color. But just like woke capitalism, we know so-called equity in education is all a smokescreen to provide the white liberals a self-congratulatory “optical diversity” outcome.
In addition, many Asian countries have a cultural traditions celebrating hard-working, talented children from poor backgrounds. Thus, Asian American immigrants generally have no problem with admissions policies that give a leg up for truly disadvantaged children — as long as that is based on class/zip code (see the book “Place, not Race”), rather than skin tone. Here in the United States, we wouldn’t mind lowering admission standards for an Asian son of a dishwasher, Latino daughter of a migrant worker, black son of a single mom working two shifts at Wal-Mart, or white daughter of an out-of-work coal miner.
But again, that’s not what’s happening with equity and affirmative action. The main beneficiaries are wealthy white or upper-middle class black and brown children. It’s all about creating an artificial racial balance that doesn’t actually upend existing wealth disparities while indoctrinating these mostly-wealth students to further this charade once they’re adults. Asian American parents and students all know about the Asian penalty, with actual data (SAT scores, hours of studying, GPA) proving that we need to work twice as hard for the same opportunities.
Frankly I just wished that the equity crowd spent most of their time focused on ensuring the top 1000 American Descendents of Slaves (ADOS) from underprivileged high schools get into 1000 college or vocational schools, rather than manipulating the system so that only the top 10 gets into a top 10 elite school. Worse still, those top 10 places are mostly given to wealthy ADOS or African/Carribean immigrants, often over more deserving impoverished Asian Americans.
The irony for white liberals is that they would immediately halt their pro-immigration stance if we had actual equity terms of the immigrants’ country of origin. Because that would lead to a surge of Asian families (remember, Asians make up the vast plurality of global population, and probably an outright majority of people interested in immigrating to the U.S.), along with our merit-based educational values flooding into mostly white, liberal counties — taking more spots away from their children.