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How and why Loudoun County became the face of the nation’s culture wars

Ian Prior, executive director of Fight for Schools, gives a speech in opposition of critical race theory being taught in Loudoun County schools during an event June 30 in Ashburn, Va. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)

Angry parents battling over critical race theory at rallies, outside school buildings and in rival Facebook groups. A teacher suing the school system after he was suspended for refusing to use transgender students’ pronouns. A raucous school board meeting that began with dueling protests over transgender rights and culminated in an arrest.

Loudoun County, a wealthy and diversifying slice of purple-turning-blue suburban Northern Virginia, is fast becoming the face of the nation’s culture wars.

“It’s unsettling to say the least, especially because it seems everybody is armed to the teeth these days,” said longtime resident Tom Mulrine, 77, who is White. “This could spark something.”

“It’s shameful,” said Wendall T. Fisher, 67, who said he was the first Black elected member of the Loudoun County School Board — and the only to date. “It’s just shameful.”

Loudoun is not the only place where furor over critical race theory, or CRT, is taking off. Conservative activists and pundits across the United States have weaponized the theory — a decades-old academic framework that holds that racism is woven into the country’s past and institutions — to claim that equity-conscious school systems are teaching children to hate one another, and White children to hate themselves.

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Politicians throughout the nation are responding: Republican-led legislatures in Idaho, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma have passed bills banning the teaching of certain race-related issues in schools.

Loudoun school officials have defended the district’s equity work and say it is not teaching critical race theory to students.

At the same time, lawmakers are pushing a raft of bills meant to restrict the rights of transgender students — the focus of a second, ongoing national conflagration. Some proposed measures would keep transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams, while others would bar doctors from giving hormones or gender-affirming surgeries to teenagers.

Nowhere in the country have both cultural fights so crystallized as in Loudoun, a county of roughly 420,000 just outside the nation’s capital, where the median income was $142,299 in 2019 (more than twice the national average). The brouhaha, especially the recent arrest at the School Board meeting, has left residents of all races, political loyalties and religious beliefs lamenting the disruption and discourtesy.

The Loudoun County Public Schools board cut short the public comment section of a school board meeting on June 22 after attendees became unruly. (Video: Loudoun County School Board)

But none say they are surprised.

Some say it’s obvious why the county is stuck in the spotlight: It’s a wealthy place, where parents have resources to spare for advocacy campaigns. It’s populated by government professionals with media savvy and political ambitions. And the county has a long history of racial hatred: It was a hotbed of Confederate resistance, and its schools and community sites were among the last in the nation to desegregate.

It is also a place in transition; the population increased about 150 percent over the past 20 years. A huge reason for the rise is an influx of families of color: Although Loudoun was about 85 percent White in 2000, it was barely 60 percent White in 2020. The politics are changing, too, in line with these demographic trends and with Virginia’s shifting landscape, switching from deep red to ever-deepening blue.

The pandemic — which forced parents inside and online, where they stewed in fear and frustration, then united in thousands-strong Facebook groups dedicated to advocacy regarding mask mandates and school reopenings — functioned like a lit match thrown on a rag soaked in gasoline, said Brenda Sheridan (Sterling), the Loudoun School Board chair.

“Loudoun was ripe for the picking,” said Sheridan, who is facing a recall campaign. “For somebody to just come and start a fire here.”

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'CRT is their new Trump'

Over Christmas last year, Zerell Johnson-Welch, 57, who is Afro-Latina and raised three children in Loudoun, had a tough conversation with her adult daughter. The young woman finally wanted to share something that happened to her half a lifetime ago, walking near a classmate’s house in the woods.

At age 12, she listened as a White girl she thought was her friend explained: “We only invited you because we wanted to see how well you hung from a tree.” Johnson-Welch’s daughter is 24 and in medical school, but she still remembers every word.

“So that’s the racial baggage our children have had to deal with” in Loudoun, said Johnson-Welch, who was an inaugural member of the school system’s equity committee.

In antebellum days, the county was home to Oatlands, a prominent 360-acre slave plantation, and auctions of enslaved people were hosted on the steps of Leesburg’s courthouse. Loudoun passed a county resolution endorsing secession close to the start of the Civil War. Later, it saw fierce fighting, sometimes serving as a base of operations for guerrilla fighter John S. Mosby, who led “Mosby’s Raiders.” Still later, the county was one of the last corners of the United States to desegregate, after forcing Black children to attend dilapidated rural schools for much of the latter half of the 20th century.

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“In Leesburg here, they filled in the community pool back in the ’60s rather than integrate it,” recalled Mulrine, a former county prosecutor.

Fisher, the former School Board member, said he sees a throughline connecting the White resistance he faced as a child when he helped integrate Loudoun’s schools with today’s critics of critical race theory. He recognizes the same arguments about trampled First Amendment rights and the contention that their children are being mistreated.

A popular post that circulated on social media following the June 22 School Board meeting and arrest juxtaposes images of White parents screaming at the meeting with White parents protesting the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957. “Same energy,” the tweet reads.

“For some reason or another, the same type of voices keep coming back,” Fisher said.

Vanessa Maddox, another longtime Loudoun resident who said she was the first Black woman to serve on the Leesburg Town Council, thinks she knows why they’re back this time.

“Trump!” she said. “When Trump lost, they lost their minds. CRT is their new Trump.”

Maddox said former president Donald Trump’s style of politics appears to have emboldened a segment of the population that had been slumbering. Al Van Huyck, 88, who is White and has owned a farm in the county since 1969, said Trump “unleashed” them.

But that population was already feeling threatened, county residents said.

Mulrine said he thinks of the county as two distinct universes, divided by Route 15. To the west of it is rural country, inhabited by mainly White, Republican and increasingly elderly farmers. It’s home to one of the county’s most conservative districts, Catoctin, which managed to send a conservative representative — John Beatty — to the otherwise mostly left-leaning board.

To the east of Route 15 are the wealthy D.C. suburbs, which seem to grow more sprawling, affluent and liberal every year.

“People were supportive of making Catoctin its own county at one point, just splitting Loudoun in half along Route 15,” Mulrine recalled. The modern-day secession attempt, pursued in the early 2000s, ultimately came to nothing.

Emily Curtis, a White Loudoun resident and a longtime Democrat who worked in President Bill Clinton’s White House and voted for President Biden, disputed the idea that the people upset about critical race theory are all conservative; she noted that she herself is quite concerned.

Curtis acknowledges that Loudoun has not added critical race theory to its curriculum as a subject to be taught. But she said she finds it deeply worrying that the school system is using “overlapping vocabulary” — including terms such as white supremacy and systemic racism — which she believes is shaping the learning environment.

Curtis, a 52-year-old software developer, fears these ideas will trickle through to the classroom, dividing children into racial groups and teaching them that their race decides their fate.

“To get a worldview for little kids that the world is built of these giant, systemic, impossible-to-overcome barriers based on the color of your skin?” she said. “Kids should be learning to dream without barriers.”

Chris Croll, a former School Board member and White mother to two high-schoolers who has lived in the county for two decades, said she thinks some of the parents agitated about critical race theory and transgender rights have legitimate concerns. But at bottom, they are struggling through an identity crisis, said Croll, who has been conservative all her life but now identifies as a moderate.

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She noted the political shifts: Long a key swing-state territory in national and state political races, Loudoun has recently trended undeniably blue. It was critical to Barack Obama’s victory in Virginia in 2008, which marked the first time a Democrat had carried the state in 44 years. In 2016, Loudoun went for Hillary Clinton, who received about 55 percent of its votes, and in 2020, it went for Biden, who received about 61 percent.

“To me, this is the last gasp of the old guard of Republicans in Virginia before they either move to Tennessee or die out or whatever,” said Croll, 50. “It’s almost like the cicadas. The cicadas got louder before they died.”

'That's crazy talk'

A recent email to members of the School Board began: “Loudoun County Virginia is ground zero and we have not yet begun to FIGHT!” It was titled, “All of America is Watching YOU!” and it promised action against the “liberal LOONS” on the board.

It was the mildest of more than 94 emails threatening Sheridan’s life or insulting her appearance and beliefs that the board chair has received in recent weeks. Five of these were so alarming that Sheridan forwarded them to law enforcement. She has also received hateful voice messages on her home phone and letters through the mail.

After one email targeted her children, she asked the county sheriff to start regularly patrolling her neighborhood.

In late June, someone dropped Ku Klux Klan fliers tucked into bags weighed down with birdseed outside homes in Ashburn and southeast Leesburg. The fliers referenced topics discussed at School Board meetings.

“This isn’t Loudoun. This just isn’t Loudoun,” Sheridan said. “This is not the Loudoun I’ve lived in for 23 years, where my husband and I raised our children.”

Ian Prior, a Loudoun parent and an especially vocal opponent of critical race theory, said he and his followers have also received threats delivered to their doorsteps. Prior said he has lived in the Blue Ridge District of Loudoun for 3½ years. “This is not something that we stand for,” he said, adding that it is unacceptable for people on either side of the debate to be targeted for their beliefs.

Van Huyck, who said he joined civil rights demonstrations in Loudoun in the Martin Luther King Jr. era, added: “On racial terms, this is a whole new level of chaos.”

Fisher agreed that the level of vitriol in the county is unprecedented, worse than in the 1950s and ’60s. He thinks he knows why: Parents nowadays know they can reach a national audience.

“They think that yelling and screaming is the way to get their point across, because they know they’re going to go on radio or television,” he said.

Fox News has made a habit of reporting on the events at almost every Loudoun School Board meeting, sometimes generating several headlines from one session. It’s part of a larger focus on critical race theory at the network: Fox has mentioned the theory at least 1,860 times in 2021, up from 132 times in 2020.

Prior, a former Trump administration official, has appeared on Fox to discuss Loudoun and critical race theory, and won a reputation as the face of the county’s movement against critical race theory.

Prior recently founded an organization, Fight for Schools, that is seeking to recall board members for violating state policies on open meetings. Prior said his group is also broadly opposed to the implementation of critical race theory in teacher trainings and the classroom.

“How are y’all enjoying the spotlight?” Prior asked the School Board at an April 27 meeting. “Fight for Schools has more tips, more stories than you all have time [for]. We can do this all day, every day until 2023 if necessary.”

The media barrage is having an effect, Johnson-Welch said. In the past few weeks, she has gotten concerned messages from family members who live far away asking about the controversy in Loudoun — including a recent text from a California nephew who wanted to know whether she was okay.

Katrece Nolen, a Black Loudoun parent, was an inaugural member of the school system’s equity committee. She saw this firsthand when attending a volleyball tournament for her daughter in Florida late last month. A White teacher from Texas walked up to Nolen at the competition and asked whether she lived in “that county we’re seeing in the news,” where instructors are teaching kids that “White boys are born racist.”

“That’s crazy talk,” she remembered telling the White woman. “That is absolutely not anything being taught in our school system.”

'This narrative will keep getting written'

Loudoun residents of all races and political stripes insist that the agitators who are against critical race theory and transgender rights are smaller in numbers than they appear, given the wall-to-wall media coverage.

Johnson-Welch said she believes a silent majority in the county supports the school system’s efforts to promote racial justice. But she worries that members of this group — many of whom are scared to share their feelings in the current climate — are not being heard.

“If we do not speak up and become more visible, if we do not push back, then this narrative will keep getting written over and over for Loudoun County,” she said.

Loudoun’s equity work began in earnest about two years ago after two high-profile reports found that widespread racism was imperiling Black and Hispanic students’ progress. The reports concluded that children of color were more likely to be disciplined than their White peers and were less likely to succeed academically. In response, the school system developed a 22-page “Plan to Combat Systemic Racism,” which called for banning Confederate gear in schools and hosting teacher trainings to foster “racial consciousness.”

But Loudoun did not start teaching critical race theory, as Superintendent Scott A. Ziegler has noted. The trainings for teachers do sometimes use vocabulary associated with critical race theory, such as “white supremacy” and “systemic racism.” Opponents have seized on this as evidence of critical race theory infiltrating the school system, which enrolls 81,000 students, a majority of whom are Black, Hispanic, Asian or multiracial.

On a parallel track to these events, the Virginia state government passed a law requiring school districts statewide to treat transgender students according to their gender identities, including by allowing them access to gender-specific facilities and programs. Loudoun’s implementation of this policy spurred more opposition, including a lawsuit from physical education teacher Tanner Cross, which is ongoing.

It is impossible to obtain an actual head count of supporters and detractors, although many of the same names and faces — on both sides of these issues — tend to appear at School Board meetings from week to week. There seems to be some overlap between the camps of those against critical race theory and those against transgender rights.

Prior, the head of Fight for Schools, said in an interview that his movement appeals to a wide range of people. He said his organization has already managed to collect signatures from more than 10,000 people for the recall effort.

“We’ve heard from conservatives, from people that consider themselves traditional liberals, we’ve heard from the Indian community, we’ve heard from teachers,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there that are certainly concerned about critical race theory in Loudoun County Public Schools.”