The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Arlington County’s progress on race and social justice is poisoned by its official logo

An Arlington County crew power-washes chalk protest on June 19 in Arlington.The daughter of a Virginia elementary school teacher had written: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal." (Courtesy of Yvaal Hampton)

Julius D. Spain Sr. is president of the Arlington Branch NAACP. Carolynn Kane and Emma Violand-Sánchez are members of the Arlington Branch NAACP.

Symbols and language matter. Arlington County’s most prominent symbol is of a slave labor camp: Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial. This symbol is on its flag, seal and logo.

To so many, it is a symbol of white supremacy and privilege, a plantation built by slave labor, and a place that for decades profited off the backs and through the exploited lives of enslaved Black people. A place where rape of people considered chattel was acceptable, where human beings were leased, sold and abused. A place where family units were ruptured and runaways were hunted like prey for cash bounties. Yet elected leaders do nothing to address their embrace of this symbolism, their silence deafening and remarkable.

The county’s Arlington House symbol represents oppression and is emblematic of a society that fought to preserve the socioeconomic status of White enslavers. A place where former enslaved person Wesley Norris remembered, “Not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, General Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.” An atrocity ordered by the man honored at Arlington House and, by extension, a man and a system honored by Arlington County.

W.E.B. Du Bois, an NAACP founder, wrote, “It is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped to maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and rebel — not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.”

It’s that enduring legacy enshrined at the center of Arlington’s flag, creating a deep chasm between the government and its people. A symbol that divides, rather than unites.

Arlington’s symbol is ubiquitous in spread and insidious in message. The symbolic slave manor is on county buses, clinics, websites, letterheads. It is not a single street name; it blankets the county with its racist imagery. It is unabashedly presented without this slaveholding context and proudly flown without regard to the harm caused. It says only some are valued. It is a trust broken.

A county manual offensively calls this slave plantation the county’s “identity . . . values . . . traditions . . . what we aspire to be.” Officials say, “There are good sides” to the slavery logo and “Lee wasn’t that involved.” They minimize its impact by calling it another “name or symbol associated with Confederates in Arlington,” although Arlington House’s slavery traditions preceded the Confederacy by nearly 60 years. Leaders try to wrap this hate symbol into a new story about the “hallowed grounds” of Arlington Cemetery. Yet the symbol is not grave markers.

The seal’s designer claims only Arlington House, and the National Park Service calls the house a memorial to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. We do not see “good sides” to this house, the official brand for Arlington County.

Elected officials claim they need a “process to make this change,” yet we know that traditional processes protect institutional racism. Arlington County Board members proclaim they need a “deep [community] dialogue,” then say those dialogues are “elitist” and forums where issues “die.” They dismiss and delay when residents and NAACP members raise these concerns. They say, but they do not act. No wonder our hope is shaken and our confidence in leaders is low.

We ask, how can county officials engage in courageous conversations about race, social equity, Arlington’s own history, social justice reform or even the county’s disinvestment in minority neighborhoods while embracing this symbol of subjugation? Because once you finally realize what their symbol means and how their words obfuscate, it haunts you and poisons those initiatives.

Symbols are important. Imagine racism as stones in a jar. Inside the jar are the pebbles of microaggressions (Black employees ordered to remove a child’s Juneteenth chalk art), foundation stones (a complaint-driven county government that disenfranchises), smooth rocks (their political platitudes and performance), jagged rocks (barriers and barbs) and the big stones (county systems and biases). Until the county recognizes that its slave-labor-camp symbol is the jar’s lid, until it holds itself accountable for its own blindness, until it retires its symbols, the county cannot reach the stones. It cannot truly see or feel, tackle or heal the wounds of the racism contained in its jar. It must first remove the lid.

We symbolically link our arms in community — a Black man, a White woman, a Latina — because harm to one is harm to all. We ask the Arlington County Board to stop delaying, put this on its September meeting agenda, listen to the public comments and vote. Restore hope, confidence and trust.

Shatter the lid. Reach the stones. Retire the logo.

Read more:

Christine Emba: The tide is shifting in Virginia

The Post’s View: A Virginia incident reflects the reality of being black in America

Dusty Horwitt: Why Virginia’s progress on racism has been slow

The Post’s View: It’s well past time for Virginia to purge racist laws from its code

Jonathan Capehart: Dismantling the myth of America and the white men who founded it