Is Arlington County, VA, Racist?

Exclusive: Many Southerners get outraged at the suggestion that racism persists these days, but residues of segregation continue in laws discouraging black voting and in the casual neglect of minority communities, even in places like Arlington, Virginia, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

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.

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

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).

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.

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.

The issue played perfectly into the Tea Party formula: hostility to government projects in general mixed with a slight odor of racism. The Streetcar was a project that would primarily make it easier for racial minorities living near Columbia Pike to go shopping or get to work. There was an attitude among some North Arlingtonians that those people should be satisfied with buses.

Pitching himself as an “independent” even with support from Arlington’s small anti-development Green Party Vihstadt cleverly exploited North Arlington’s resentment toward spending money on South Arlington. Indeed, his first County Board campaign only highlighted attacks on capital improvements in South Arlington, particularly the Streetcar which he parodied with a photo of a Rice-a-Roni-style trolley.

The irony, however, is that Arlington County has continued lavishing spending on North Arlington, especially on the glittering neighborhoods along the Orange Line. Some $55 million was spent to install three new elevators at the Metro entrance at Rosslyn and nearly $2 million went to renovate a dog park at Clarendon. Billions of dollars more have gone into the Silver Line, which when completed will connect North Arlington to Dulles Airport.

But there was this fierce opposition to the Columbia Pike Streetcar, whose costs have escalated due to the years of delays to around $300 million with about one-third of the money coming from the state and much of the rest picked up by special taxes on businesses that would benefit from the improved transit.

Though the state money would presumably be lost if the Streetcar is killed, North Arlington residents may well be eying other parts of the funding for more improvements to the Orange and Silver lines. So, some of the opposition can be explained as simply the richer, more powerful part of Arlington County grabbing money away from the poorer, weaker part of the county. But there is the troubling back story of Arlington’s history of slavery and segregation.

Understanding Arlington

Arlington County, which was originally the southwest corner of Washington D.C. that spilled across the Potomac into Virginia, was ceded back to the Commonwealth in 1846. Then, the land was home to slaveholding plantations, particularly in South Arlington, the less hilly and less forested part of the county. One of those plantations belonged to Gen. Robert E. Lee.

After Virginia joined the Confederacy in 1861 and Lee deserted the U.S. Army to command Confederate forces, his plantation was seized, with part of it becoming a cemetery for Union troops killed in the Civil War, what is now known as Arlington Cemetery.

After President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, the former Lee plantation also became home to freed slaves, both his and others who flocked northward arriving via Columbia Pike.

Thousands of ex-slaves were settled in a large refugee camp known as Freedman’s Village along Columbia Pike (near the current site of the Air Force Memorial and the Pentagon). Freedman’s Village remained there for decades after the Civil War, finally closed in 1900. But many of the African-Americans stayed in the area, some settling in South Arlington’s historic black neighborhoods.

However, after Reconstruction ended, Arlington County like the rest of Virginia and the Old Confederacy continued to persecute African-Americans while honoring the legacy of the pro-slavery secessionists. In the 1920s, at the height of the Jim Crow era when blacks were being lynched and terrorized, a stretch of Route One through South Arlington was named in honor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis who wanted to keep African-Americans in slavery for perpetuity. The highway skirted several black neighborhoods.

Around the two world wars as the number of U.S. government bureaucrats increased, many settled in newly developed neighborhoods in North Arlington, which were largely off limits to blacks. So, when the era of segregation ended in the 1960s, Arlington like many Southern communities was divided largely along racial lines. That was the time frame when I first arrived, having grown up in New England and moving from Providence, Rhode Island.

More Imbalance

In the 1970s, despite Arlington’s racial divisions and wealth disparities, the truth was that the main commercial thoroughfares through the two parts of the county — Wilson Boulevard in North Arlington and Columbia Pike in South Arlington were both dumpy and depressing.

But that was about to change. The massive public investments in the Orange Line transformed Wilson Boulevard into a glittering showplace, a hotspot for young, mostly white professionals. Yet, Columbia Pike remained pretty much the same, an eyesore of strip malls, car congestion and slow-moving buses servicing a racially diverse population, now with many Latinos and Asians as well as blacks and whites.

Indeed, the shameful reality of Arlington County was that the gap between predominantly white North Arlington and racially diverse South Arlington actually grew wider after segregation ended in the 1960s, rather than narrowing.

To add injury to this insult, the people of South Arlington ended up subsidizing wealthier North Arlington because much of the money for the Metro system comes from a gas surtax that falls most heavily on people who rely on their cars for transportation, i.e., people with inferior public transit. There’s also the financial benefit for North Arlington families who can get by with one or no car and thus save more money.

Yet, Tea Party-style politicians have learned that — whatever the reality — they can exploit the Old Confederacy’s subterranean racial divisions for political gain. As we’ve seen in Arlington County, the strategy works not only in the rural Deep South but in relatively sophisticated communities in Northern Virginia.

And, as for Jefferson Davis Highway honoring a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist I did urge the County Board to appeal to the Republican-controlled Virginia legislature to end this vestige of racial bigotry. My proposal drew mostly derisive attention from the local media and hate mail from one resident of North Arlington who wrote: “I am very proud of my Commonwealth’s history, but not of the current times, as I’m sure many others are.” [See’s “Shameful History of Jeff Davis Highway.”]

That minor public furor caused a senior elected Democrat to approach me at a public meeting and urge me to back off the Jefferson Davis proposal for fear of complicating Arlington County’s relations with the politicians in the state capital of Richmond. The county official told me that the notion of removing Jefferson Davis’s name would be viewed as crazy by many state legislators.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.


15 comments for “Is Arlington County, VA, Racist?

  1. George Fish
    November 8, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    Seems there’s more than just racism here, there’s also classism, the desire of the better-off not to spend money on those lower on the socio-economic ladder. In the talk of the “intersection of race and class” on the left, while race gets emphasized, class gets the short shrift. But classism is clearly here as much as racism. & middle-class insensitivity to the poor and the non-professional working class, whatever the race of such, is well established.

    November 8, 2014 at 8:42 pm

    Those claiming no racism in the US are either numbskulls or liars or both. Racism is alive and thriving in the north as well as the south, and those fighting it dwell on both sides, with little help from authorities who are as likely to sponsor racism as not.

  3. Mark
    November 8, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    Racism is inherent in child-like thinking on the local playground, where any excuse will do – to say I’m better than you because… And with it being accepted and built into the social culture, it means the majority of adults never really grow out of that childish reality. People are full of self deceptions and continuously oppressing others is one way to keep the racist illusion of superiority alive. There are differences in US race cultures with whites historically keeping others down – while the others are only trying to get a fair shake. Seems like a smart lawyer would be able to sue the county on the basis of racial discrimination, and make everyone think twice if nothing else.

  4. JWalters
    November 8, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    African Americans are pushed into poverty, and then that poverty is used to justify claims they are lesser beings, and that money spent on their education would be wasted. Scientific studies, and cultural history, have shown that children of all races, with adequate nutrition, love, and education can be fully functioning members of society.

  5. November 9, 2014 at 12:43 am

    Mr. Parry…A similar sort of racially and socioeconomically motivated atrocity is being inflicted on Tacoma, Washington, where wealthy white suburbanites who voted to slash local bus service by 75 percent are now rewarded with new routes and substantial service increases even as service inside the city limits remains permanently diminished.

    For details see my website, specifically “Tacoma, Washington USA: Microcosm of Capitalism and Class Struggle” (scroll down to “In the seaport city of Tacoma, the most vivid example of class warfare is the white suburbanites’ ongoing attack on mass transit.”); see also “Exclusive: How a Local Transit Crisis Exemplifies the Global Class War”; “How Republican Hate-Mongering Wrecked an Urban Transit System”; and “The Breathtaking Hypocrisy of the Anti-Transit Evergreen State.”

    Meanwhile thank you for recognizing how a locale’s attitude toward public transport is always a microcosm of its politics.

  6. Joe Tedesky
    November 9, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Upon my reading of Mr Parry’s decision to live in South Arlington he just proved to me how he (Robert Parry) certainly walks the walk. If only Parry’s actions were more the norm, then we wouldn’t have bad neighborhoods. Instead, the mix of class and race could work together to provide a decent environment, whereas we all could live.

    It would not surprise me if I were to find out that South Arlington’s police force is well financed though. I could be wrong about this, but priorities as they often are would hold to this process. I could see the Tea Party supporting a project such as putting up a 20 foot high chain link fence around our undesirable neighborhoods. There would be no limit to the cost of that project. I hope that never comes to light, but then again, I never thought we would build a fence along the Mexican border.

    Lastly, I have noticed via my Tea Party friends how they seem to hate mass transit projects. When I push these friends on the subject, their excuse is, “to much money’. These same friends while finding it impossible to finance transit solutions will applaud us bombing people in far away places with one and half million dollar missiles. When I point out how the USA fired off 47 of these Tomahawk missiles on our first day of bombing ISIS, they respond with a hearty approval. Their reasoning is that’s the price we pay for ‘freedom’!

  7. Bruce Harmon
    November 9, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    I don’t think that those real estate developers, who would be the primary beneficiaries of the streetcar, are great believers in diversity of any kind, and I also don’t think that the racism Parry describes is Vihstadt’s main focus. The tea-party Republicans that Vihstadt represents are mainly using the streetcar as a wedge issue to displace the county board’s Democrats. While I do agree with much of Parry’s views about the class-race divide between north and south Arlington — since 1950, I have lived in both parts of the county, and now live in south Arlington — he does gloss over some important details. The “glittering” high-rise development along the Wilson Blvd.-Fairfax Drive-I-66 corridor displaced hundreds of middle-class residents, many of whom lived in the same sort of 1920s or older houses that are still found in much of south Arlington. While that corridor does “glitter” in some people’s eyes, others see it as an extended eyesore of sterile high-rise condos, apartments and office buildings with huge traffic and parking problems. Clarendon, Rosslyn, and the area around the courthouse were pretty run-down in the 1970s, partly because of the many years of Metro construction that harmed businesses all along the corridor. Many neighborhoods along those corridors have since benefited from Metro, with real estate values going up — but mainly those aren’t the same people who lived there before Metro. Who benefited were the real estate developers, and they will/would be the beneficiaries of the gentrification along Columbia Pike that the streetcar would bring. Contrary to Parry’s view, in the 1950s and into the 1960s, most of the neighborhoods along Columbia Pike were not the home of racial or ethnic “minorities” — middle-class white people were the main ethnic group living along the Pike, with pockets of African-Americans living farther away in Nauck, Green Valley, and Arlington View. Only much later — in the 1980s and 1990s — were those white residents replaced by immigrants from Latin America, Africa and South Asia. Do those immigrants work in white-collar jobs downtown, the main focus of the streetcar feeder line for Metro? The residents of Skyline Towers, the huge apartment development near the streetcar’s projected western terminus would but I don’t think the “minorities” along the Pike work downtown, except as construction workers and office cleaners. But the developers who see great possibilities in gentrifying the Pike to create another “glittering” corridor for upwardly mobile people, displacing the Latinos, Africans and Asians who live in the apartments that will be torn down and replaced, certainly see the streetcar as a way of moving those new populations to white-collar jobs downtown.
    To some extent we do get the fuzzy end of the lollipop down here in south Arlington, but the streetcar won’t help the ethnic minorities who live along the Pike unless they can afford to live in the much more expensive apartments and condos that the streetcar would make economically feasible. And while Parry may see only the payday loan offices and rundown strip malls along the Pike, I see also a good farmers market at Walter Reed drive, that great Latin bakery farther west, a virtual United Nations of restaurants that couldn’t possibly afford north Arlington rents, and markets that are a wonderful melange of nationalities. If Parry could guarantee that the working class people who live there now would be able to stay along the Pike after the streetcar is built, I would be all for it. I wonder where they will move to after the streetcar is built and the rents skyrocket?

  8. Gregory Kruse
    November 9, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    The most dangerous place to speak out is on the local level.

  9. sam
    November 10, 2014 at 10:46 am

    The Pike corridor has also seen a huge surge in Spanish-speaking immigrants over the last couple of decades, who are far less influential and powerful than their wealthy, mostly white voters north of Route 50.

    What’s even more telling is when you ask anti-streetcar activists what alternatives they suggest, the best they can come up with is some vague, unworkable plan to put in bigger buses. It’s clear these anti-streetcar activists don’t really know what else to do, nor do they really seem to care. They’re just against the Pike streetcar, even while tens and even hundreds of millions are spent routinely maintaining the Metro stops up in the North and along Crystal City.

  10. tim
    November 10, 2014 at 11:19 am

    I have lived on the Pike for 8 of the last 10 years and I am a pro-streetcar… but screaming racism against the elected county board member and people who live in North Arlington is entirely irresponsible and just plain wrong. People can have differing opinions on spending priorities without being racist or class-ist.

  11. John
    November 10, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    With the Columbia Pike master plan Arlington actually has the tools in place to build more affordable housing along the pike with redevelopment and increased density. The downside is that Arlington tends to concentrate affordable housing at the western end of the pike, which is contributing to increased socio-economic segregation among area neighborhoods.

    Ideally, the streetcar and related development would create vibrant mixed income communities. I’m all for it.

  12. Duh
    November 10, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    You do realize that a lot of South Arlington residents voted against the streetcar, too, right?

  13. Duh
    November 10, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    You do realize that a lot of South Arlington residents voted for Vihstadt, too, right?

  14. Touma
    November 13, 2014 at 10:39 am

    I live right off the Pike, and I am opposed to the streetcar. But I voted for Vihstadt for more than the streetcar. It is nice to have someone who won’t sign blank checks for every stupid project. But I assume you’ll call me a racist because I am opposed to more dog parks, and million dollar bus stops, as well.

    This article is so full of bullcrap, that it screams “I’m a sore loser”.

  15. hammersmith
    November 17, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    Arlington, Virginia, IS the North. Only an ignoramus or an anti-southern bigot would write w/o acknowledging this.

Comments are closed.