How can we combat racism in America if many White people see any attempt to remedy it as a threat and an insult?

That question was front and center last week in Loudoun County at a rowdy school board meeting featuring outraged complaints from scores of conservative parents and activists.

They objected to a racial equity initiative adopted two years ago by the school system in the affluent Northern Virginia suburb. The effort, ordered by the state attorney general, aims to improve treatment of students of color, who are a majority in Loudoun.

The project has led to racial sensitivity training for teachers, the dropping of a pro-Confederate high school mascot and a formal apology for Loudoun’s history of segregation.

Mental health experts talk about why understanding your whiteness is an important part of self awareness for White people. (Nicole Ellis, Lindsey Sitz/The Washington Post)

It’s an open, conscious endeavor to fight what the school system calls its own problems of “systemic racism.” It’s driven partly by a desire to reduce racial disparities in graduation and discipline rates. It also seeks to end a documented pattern of racist and other insensitive comments directed at students of color.

But the mostly White parents at Tuesday’s board meeting instead saw a sinister plot. They lined up to condemn the board, one minute per speaker, for supposedly trying to make White children feel guilty about their race and ashamed of their country’s history. Three typical comments:

“We can’t find one race to be the scapegoat for every bad thing that’s ever been done.”

“You are now teaching our children to be social justice warriors and to loathe our country and our history.”

“I will do everything I possibly can to fight to the bitter end until you prove to me that you are not teaching my children that they are racist just because they are White.”

The speakers were also angry that the school system suspended a physical education teacher for saying his Christian beliefs bar him from calling trans students by the pronouns they use. A judge, who previously served as an elected Republican prosecutor, has ordered the teacher reinstated. The school system plans to appeal.

Both disputes have drawn national media attention, especially from Fox News and other conservative outlets. Conservatives say they highlight an overall backlash against liberal policies at “woke” schools. Republican politicians in Virginia and elsewhere hope to capitalize.

But the racial equity controversy also illustrates the unwillingness of many Whites to tolerate even modest efforts to account for racial discrimination in America, past and present.

It’s an unmistakable example of “White fragility,” the intense discomfort that many Whites feel at any suggestion that we have benefited from our race, or that we harbor unconscious racist attitudes instilled by a predominantly White culture.

Conservatives complain that the Loudoun equity project draws, in part, on some concepts from the academic framework known as “critical race theory.” It asserts, among other things, that racism is the product of systems, not individuals, and therefore is interwoven into daily life and history in America.

As a result, the conservatives say, Loudoun teachers are trying to indoctrinate students to believe that all Whites are racist, or to despise the United States for its history of mistreatment of Blacks and other minorities.

But there are few examples from the classroom to back up such exaggerated concern.

For instance, a website opposed to the equity project points to a brief video of a Loudoun teacher in a college-level English class asking students to describe what they saw in a photo showing a Black woman and a White woman standing back to back. When one student said he saw “just two people chillin’,” the teacher faulted the student for refusing to acknowledge the racial difference.

“I think you’re being intentionally coy about what this is a picture of,” the teacher said at one point in a back-and-forth over the photo.

The teacher was more forceful than he should have been, but his comments hardly constituted totalitarian brainwashing as conservatives allege.

The website also cites a slide, allegedly shown to second-graders, asking students to answer the question, “How can you be an anti-racist leader?” A suggested answer: “I can be an anti-racist leader by always being an upstander and doing the right thing. I can always fight for what is fair.”

That’s an outrage only for people who don’t think the schools should try to fight racism.

Indeed, one’s stance on this issue depends in large part on whether one believes that racism persists in American institutions. Conservative leaders in Loudoun say no.

“I don’t believe systemic racism exists,” said Scott Mineo, founder of Parents Against Critical Theory. “If you go into an institution like this one [Loudoun schools], show me the racism and the white supremacy that’s in here. I can’t find it.”

He said he didn’t trust data cited by the school system showing that Blacks and Latinos are being disciplined more often than Whites. He dismissed the idea that students should be educated about wrongs that have been done to racial minorities.

“Give me a break,” Mineo said. “That’s a stretch to cast a wide net like that to say that every minority in this country has been discriminated against.”

He continued: “I’m the furthest thing from a racist. My son’s girlfriend is from the Middle East and my daughter’s boyfriend is Hispanic. They’re great kids. . . . I judge you by the content of your character, not the color of your skin.”

But if one believes that racism remains a systemic problem, then the Loudoun initiative is an initial step in the right direction. Superintendent Scott A. Ziegler stresses that the effort is not trying to fix society as a whole but just the system he heads.

“We were the last county in the commonwealth to desegregate,” Ziegler said. “We know that our systems were set up so that our White students benefited more from our programs than our students of color did.”

He continued: “Students [of color] are telling me, ‘We need you to disrupt this, because we experience racism every day. We experience it in school, we experience it online, we experience it in the general community.’”

The dispute is not going away. Loudoun schools are making plans to teach more material about the history of racial minorities. That’s in accordance with a state law passed in 2020 and sponsored by Loudoun state Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D).

“If you look at the curriculum in the schools, it is primarily from an Anglo-American perspective,” Boysko said. “With so many people coming from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, it’s important that we help students understand the stories and the plights of all people who live in the United States.”

Last Tuesday won’t be the final time the school board hears a litany of White grievance.