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Is Arlington County, VA, Racist?

By       Message Robert Parry       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink

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Reprinted from Consortium News


Surely, the upwardly mobile white professionals who live in the stylish neighborhoods of North Arlington, a close Metro commute to Washington DC, don't consider themselves racist. Nor does Arlington County in general, believing that it left behind the bad old days of racial segregation in the 1960s.

But Arlington, Virginia, is like many communities in the South, unwilling to confront both the vestiges of slavery/segregation and always susceptible to new packaging for racial divisions. This reality was apparent in a hard-fought contest for the County Board in which the central issue was whether to build a light-rail commuter line to service the poorer and more racially diverse part of the county.

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The seal of Arlington County, Virginia, highlighting the colonnade of Robert E. Lee's mansion.

The Republican/Tea Party candidate John Vihstadt, running as an "independent," made opposition to the Columbia Pike Streetcar the centerpiece of his campaign and he received strong support from wealthier, whiter North Arlington, where there is much resistance to investing in infrastructure for the historically black part of the county, south of Arlington Boulevard (also known as U.S. Route 50).

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Vihstadt had the backing of the local newspaper, the Sun-Gazette, which doesn't even bother to distribute in much of South Arlington because its residents aren't the newspaper's desired demographic. Vihstadt also won the support of the neoconservative Washington Post.

So, it wasn't entirely a surprise when Vihstadt soundly defeated the Democratic nominee, Alan Howze, who supported the Streetcar as a necessary step toward balanced development in Arlington County and toward strengthening the community's tax base.

But this local race said a lot about the issue of race that still percolates just below the surface in the Old Confederacy. It is a topic that I have witnessed up close since moving to Arlington in the 1970s, what might be called the post-segregation period.

"The Schools"

In 1977, after being transferred to Washington by the Associated Press, I rented a house in North Arlington and -- as I looked around for where to buy -- I was warned by neighbors that I should avoid South Arlington because of "the schools." It soon became clear to me that "the schools" was code for South Arlington's racial diversity.

So, I decided to buy a house in South Arlington and all four of my children attended "the schools." But what I hadn't expected was that Arlington County, which had long neglected the black and brown neighborhoods of South Arlington, would not only continue that segregation-era behavior, but escalate it.

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While one might have hoped that Arlington County would want to respond to the end of segregation by pouring more public monies into South Arlington to equalize the infrastructure of the county's two halves, the local governments (county, state and regional) did the opposite. They poured billions upon billions of dollars into the whiter, wealthier North Arlington, particularly around the Metro's Orange Line.

Meanwhile, the neglect continued for South Arlington. One of the few major county projects for South Arlington was to expand the sewer treatment plant to handle the increased sewage flow from North Arlington. Other spending on South Arlington always seemed to get slow-rolled or killed outright.

The original Metro plan had called for a subway line going down Columbia Pike, the shabby commercial corridor through South Arlington. But that was eliminated for cost reasons. So, a decade ago, the Columbia Pike neighborhoods accepted a much cheaper light-rail commuter line as a consolation prize, but it was delayed for years before finally getting green-lighted by Democrats on the County Board.

Tea Party Opposition

However, once the Columbia Pike Streetcar became a real possibility, well-funded opposition -- much of it from North Arlington and from Northern Virginia's Republican/Tea Party elements -- took aim at the project as too expensive and at members of the County Board who okayed it.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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