Race and Rebuilding

Arlington is proudly progressive, yet its schools, neighborhoods and police records tell a different story about race. Where do we go from here?
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Social justice advocate Elizabeth Jones Valderrama amid the ships of “Passage.” The art installation is a partnership between Arlington Arts Center and the Community Foundation of Northern Virginia and was funded by the foundation’s Ross-Roberts Fund for the Arts. Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

The Arlington Arts Center lawn is currently occupied by 26 sculptural likenesses of the slave ships that carried the first Black people in bondage to Virginia’s shores in 1619. The installation, “Passage,” by artist Lynda Andrews-Barry, is perhaps a fitting reminder that Arlington, for all of its progressive ideals, is still grappling with some hard truths about its racial past—one that for centuries has afforded advantages to some and not others.

One hundred years after the county adopted as its moniker the name of a former slave plantation, its geographic and socioeconomic landscapes remain somewhat segregated. Arlington’s Black residents, on the whole, have less generational wealth than their White neighbors. Public schools are still struggling to close the opportunity gap in a system that identifies 46% of White students as gifted by the time they reach middle school, compared with only 21% of Black students.

Arlington County’s official logo and seal are stylized renditions of Arlington House, the plantation home built by George Washington Parke Custis in the early 1800s, where more than 60 enslaved people kept house and harvested corn and wheat for the wealthy step-grandson of our nation’s first president. Later, the estate would become the home of Mary Anna Custis Lee and her husband, Robert E. Lee, who went on to lead the Confederate army.

As the Civil War neared its end, the federal government claimed the grounds of the Custis-Lee estate as a burial site for Union dead (now Arlington National Cemetery) and established Freedman’s Village, a settlement for formerly enslaved people that quickly fell victim to overcrowding. The abolitionist Sojourner Truth reportedly spent a year there.

By 1900, Freedman’s Village had closed, and many of its former inhabitants spilled into the surrounding areas to form Arlington’s historically Black neighborhoods. They pieced together parcels around Green Valley, a farmstead established by free Blacks prior to the Civil War, and gave rise to new neighborhoods such as Penrose and Arlington View.

And there they remained through the Jim Crow era, insulated by a tight-knit sense of community but also hemmed in by segregation and discriminatory lending practices.

With the establishment of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934, the U.S. government began withholding mortgage capital for homes in and near African-American neighborhoods like Green Valley—a practice known as “redlining”—while incentivizing developers like Frank Lyon who were building Whites-only subdivisions to the north.

Fast-forward to today and redlining’s legacy in Arlington is striking: In 2019, the average home sold in Lyon Village (a neighborhood that remains 75% White) went for $1.6 million, according to Bright MLS data. By comparison, the average home in Green Valley, whose makeup is 34% Black and 23% Latinx, sold for $591,000.

The numbers paint a stark picture of how property valuations established during segregation have, over time, allowed White families to amass generational wealth—via homeownership and appreciating home values—at a rate unattainable for Black families.

Green Valley is in ZIP code 22204, an area that now holds the county’s highest concentration of poverty, according to an analysis by the Arlington Community Foundation. In the adjacent neighborhood of Columbia Heights, where seven out of 10 residents are Black or Latinx, 17% live below the poverty line—nearly three times the countywide poverty rate of 6%. The average home sale in Columbia Heights last year was $494,000; meanwhile some three quarters of the neighborhood’s residents are renters.

In the 1930s, a literal segregation wall was built to separate the new White neighborhood of Woodlawn (now Waycroft-Woodlawn) from Halls Hill—one of the only historically Black neighborhoods in North Arlington.
A section of that structure remains standing today.

Yet Arlington has long been cleaved by a bigger divide, says local historian Alfred O. Taylor, who was born and raised in Green Valley. “Arlington has always had a segregation wall. That wall is called Route 50,” he says. “The neighborhoods to the north of it are still majority White. The south side was always more affordable, with smaller houses.”

Socioeconomic disparities are similarly contoured in the makeup of Arlington’s public schools. At Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary in Green Valley, where nearly three quarters of students are Black or Latinx, 61% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. At Tuckahoe Elementary in North Arlington, which is 75% White, fewer than 2% of students qualify for subsidized lunch.

Even life expectancies vary by geography in a county measuring a mere 26 square miles. An analysis of Census data by the Northern Virginia Health Foundation pegs the average life span in Green Valley at 79 years—versus 85 years in the leafy northern enclave of Bellevue Forest, where restrictive covenants once excluded “negros [sic]…Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Persians and Syrians,” unless they were employed as “domestic servants.” Today, Bellevue Forest is 86% White. Homes there go for $1.3 million on average.

County officials, community activists and concerned citizens are now working to dismantle the scaffolding of structural racism. Some anti-racist efforts are symbolic—such as the renaming of schools (Washington-Lee) and roads (Lee Highway; Jefferson Davis Highway) that bear the names of Confederate leaders, and the coming together of thousands who marched Arlington’s streets in protest after the death of George Floyd.

Other initiatives are more surgical, such as the county’s establishment this summer of an external police practices work group, and the July appointment of a chief race and equity officer (Samia Byrd) to examine county organizational structures and policies through an equity lens.

As this story went to press, the Arlington County Board, under mounting pressure from the Arlington Branch NAACP and other social justice groups, was beginning the painstaking process of revamping its logo, seal and flag via a communitywide process.

But perhaps the hardest work ahead lies in the everyday personal choices and uncomfortable interactions that are necessary for real change. We asked six local advocates to talk frankly about race, anti-racism, allyship and where we go next.


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Sherrice Kerns in Butler Holmes Park, just south of Route 50. In the 1940s, members of the Butler-Holmes Citizens’ Association pushed for school reforms that paved the way for desegregation. Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Sherrice Kerns, 56, is a policy analyst and civil rights advocate. She is co-chair of the Arlington Branch NAACP’s education committee; a founding member of the education advocacy group Black Parents of Arlington; and vice president of the Wakefield High School PTSA. She lives in Penrose with her teenage daughter.

Arlington may be progressive in ideals, but not in behavior. It’s easy to say the words, but it’s hard to bring actions into alignment.

White people seem to bristle at the term “racism” because they associate it with the big transgressions. They think: My family never owned slaves. I’ve never called someone the N-word. I have a Black friend. But there are so many subtler elements of racism—for example, if you decide not to send your child to a school that has a large proportion of Black and brown kids who are on free and reduced lunch, that’s racist.

White parents have a disproportionate ability to push on the system to benefit their children. The whole system is set up to provide opportunities for very specific groups and deny them to others. This bears out in the data where, by middle school, you have this disproportionate number of White students identified as gifted.

We also see this play out in how schools handle discipline. Research by The Equity Project at Indiana University, as well as a 2018 congressional report prepared by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, points to disparities in how children of different races are disciplined for similar misbehaviors. When Black children misbehave they are singled out for much lesser transgressions and the reaction tends to be much more punitive. In 2017-18, Black students represented 11% of the APS high school population, but accounted for 35% of out-of-school suspensions. That data should be alarming. There’s a presumption of guilt and criminality of minorities, particularly by White people, which undergirds our school system. There’s a fundamental presumption of innocence for White kids that isn’t afforded to Black and Latinx children.

There are still quite a few White families who look at minority families and attribute these discrepancies to issues of character. It becomes not so much about the school system but about the culture. If you make it about the problems that are in the families, then it absolves you of fixing the issues.

There’s a nascent, evolving level of honesty that’s beginning to emerge. APS is starting to acknowledge these issues and try to address them, which is a step in the right direction. But it’s not a linear conversation. When we talk about racism and inequity in education, we can’t separate that from issues of transportation, housing, health. A child with a sick parent or who has trouble getting to school isn’t going to perform well academically. There are all kinds of things that feed this narrative, and for many minority groups there are multiple baseline issues that exacerbate the opportunity gap.

If we want Arlington to be what we espouse—that we’re diverse, and our diversity is our strength—we have to do the work to make our reality align more with our values. There are pockets of White people who are deep into the work. They’re active and they’re uncomfortable and they make mistakes. And that’s what you have to be OK with if you are White. You have to be OK with the fact that racism may not be about you directly, but you benefit from this entire system that’s been set up to favor White people. When you buy into the narrative that you didn’t benefit from the system, you’re so deep in the system that you can’t see it.


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Alfred O. Taylor at his home in Green Valley. Photo by Michael Ventura

Alfred O. Taylor, 86, is an author, educator and historian. He previously served as the president of the Nauck/Green Valley Civic Association and presently serves as chairman of the Deacon’s Ministry at Macedonia Baptist Church. Delores, his wife of 67 years, passed away in 2019; together they had two children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

I was born and raised in Arlington, on South Langley Street in Green Valley. For a time, the neighborhood was called Nauck, before its original name was restored last year. My parents sent me to school in the District when I was in the fourth grade to provide me more educational choices. The D.C. schools were funded by Congress (rather than the individual states) and were closer to the ideal of a “separate but equal” education.

Back when I was growing up here, it was a village—everybody knew everybody. At one time, Green Valley was 97% African American, with 65% of people owning their own homes. As of the 2010 census, it was only 37% African American. Every neighborhood that used to be majority Black is now minority Black. Homes in Arlington’s traditionally Black neighborhoods are being replaced with McMansions.

I embrace change, but what I don’t embrace is losing the spirit of the community. People live next door to each other, but that does not a community make. Diversity isn’t just living next door to a White person, or having a whole neighborhood of different people but no interaction between the groups.

Desegregation was intended to be good. But was it? When I was coming up, Black teachers would tell us, “You’re going to learn, and the reason I know you’re going to learn is because I’m going to be here to ensure that.” That was the spirit of the Black teacher when I was going to school; I’m not sure that was the same spirit at the onset of desegregation.

Because of the conversations happening now between different ethnicities, there’s a better cultural understanding. I hope it will lead to more unity—to a new paradigm for what tomorrow’s communities will look like.

I’m glad we’re being forced into having these conversations because it will draw us closer together as a true community. I find that people everywhere now are asking the questions that we haven’t asked before. That means that we’re in different times, that people can have these conversations.


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Elizabeth Jones Valderrama. Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Elizabeth Jones Valderrama, 40, is the executive director of OAR of Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church, a nonprofit dedicated to restorative justice. When she was 9 years old, she moved to Arlington from Costa Rica. She now lives in Herndon with her husband, a law enforcement officer.

For years, we’ve known that every single system is failing BIPOC [Black, indigenous and people of color]. OAR works with people who are currently in or coming out of incarceration; with people connected to the criminal legal system; and with folks who are doing community service so that they don’t become incarcerated. We see people not as problems to fix, but as individuals who have their own answers and just need the support and coaching from us.

We believe the root cause of the problems in the criminal legal system is racism. Internally, we’ve been moving our organization toward being both an anti-racist and a pro-Black nonprofit. Some of the anti-racist work we do in the community is connected to law enforcement—courts, probation, things that were initially established to do harm to BIPOC.

White people may think it’s not their responsibility—that they had nothing to do with establishing these systems. But let’s say you inherited a house from your ancestors and it’s falling down around you. You didn’t have any part in building it, but now it’s yours. Now you either have to take it down and rebuild it or figure out how to make changes so that we can all live safely in this house.

We don’t want people to dismiss racism, thinking, Oh, slavery happened years ago. No one in our generation had to fight for women’s suffrage, either, but we still take advantage of the right to vote. Unfortunately, we have all been dealt slavery’s legacy. We didn’t build this house, but we have to make it comfortable for everyone.

Transformation starts with each individual understanding how they are conditioned by a racist system, and then supporting the people around them. Each person has a sphere of influence of about 2,000 people. We want people to use that influence to make change horizontally, not just at the policy level.

Yes, go out and march and vote and advocate for change. But what’s critical to understand is that the most harm is done in a horizontal fashion—with your peers, colleagues, family members, friends.

How can you make a difference on a horizontal level? Think about who you’re hiring or promoting. Who are your leaders? What’s on your bookshelves—and what are your kids reading? What TV shows are you watching? When you pass a Black person on the street, do you treat them like a person, look them in the eye and say hi?

If you’re having a conversation that starts to feel racially uncomfortable, call people in rather than calling them out. This is not about guilt or shaming people for saying the wrong thing. We need everyone on this bus, working for an anti-racist agenda. Yes, it’s going to be uncomfortable for some people, but we need to bring everyone to the table.

White people are experiencing a different kind of suffering from racism—a suffering of the soul. It affects who they are and the collective idea of, Even if I’m good, if my community isn’t, then I can’t be OK.

At some point, people who are not anti-racist are creating harm. At OAR, we’re all about reducing harm. The way we reduce harm is by working on our racism. For BIPOC, our reason for doing this work is to achieve liberation in our lifetime. For me, as a Black Latina, liberation means that I can enter a space exactly as I am and not feel afraid. It means that not only is it OK to be BIPOC, it’s celebrated.

I’m glad people are asking questions and trying to figure out how to do better. At the same time, I’m disappointed that it’s taken so long. I’m wary that it’s not going to continue when anti-racism isn’t sexy anymore.


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Whytni Kernodle with her husband, Robert Frederick, and sons, Jackson and Sawyer Kernodle-Frederick. Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Whytni Kernodle, 47, is an attorney; political strategist; co-founder and president of Black Parents of Arlington; and co-founder and steering committee member of Arlington for Justice. She currently serves on Arlington’s Human Rights Commission, Police Practices Work Group, County Council of PTAs and Advisory Council on Teaching & Learning. She lives with her husband and two teenage sons in Courthouse.

I’ve been White-splained and man­splained to my entire life. As a Black woman, I can’t separate the two—especially when a White man is explaining to me that his views on racism are more aligned with the truth than mine are.

It happened most recently during an online civic engagement meeting I was leading in Arlington. Our group was discussing how to define our vision. One of my colleagues, an older White man with outwardly anti-racist viewpoints, didn’t like how the vision statement read: We envision an Arlington where systemic racism, xenophobia, classism and ableism no longer exist. He said we couldn’t imply those things currently exist unless they were “proven by experts.”

They have been proven. I’ve been working on this issue for over a decade. That’s why I was leading the meeting. I’m the expert.

Explaining this got me nowhere. He continued to dismiss my point of view as unfounded. When I said, “I’m offended that you, a White man, are treating me, a Black woman, this way,” he blew up. At that point it became all about his feelings and his emotions.

I am an Ivy League-educated attorney. What makes his opinion more valuable than mine? What’s going on in his head that he thinks his experience means more than mine?

There were three young women on the call, and there was no way I was going to let that man talk to me like that in front of them.

The thing is, we’re all on the same team. This is a man who wants Arlington to be anti-racist. He is, without a doubt, as well-intentioned as anyone in his position could be—and he’s still part of the problem. People like that, who have labeled themselves “woke” and feel like they’re beyond reproach, are the biggest problem.

As a Black woman with Black teenage sons and all the trauma and pain and fear that goes into that, I don’t have time to address faux-progressivism on anything other than a macro level.

How do you talk to someone who believes himself to be progressive—who believes he’s working for social justice—about how his fragility and defensiveness make him not only part of the problem, but a bigger part of the problem?

He pats himself on the back for being one of the good ones, but doesn’t hesitate to minimize a younger Black woman in a meeting. This guy isn’t mine to change—he’s for White people to change.


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Public defender Brad Haywood. Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Brad Haywood, 44, is the chief public defender for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church. He’s also executive director of Justice Forward Virginia, a nonpartisan criminal justice reform advocacy group. He lives in Lyon Village.

Criminal justice reform is the civil rights issue of our generation. Our criminal justice system is an extension of the institution of slavery. In Arlington, we want to think of ourselves as very progressive; we don’t want things to exist in our communities that challenge that notion.

If you’re a wealthy White person in Arlington, there’s a good chance you haven’t had to come to grips with the criminal justice system. But look at the racial disparities in the way our policing is done. Our county is roughly 9% Black, but nearly 60% of people arrested for pot are Black—even though national data show that marijuana usage is generally the same among White and Black people.

More than half the people charged with criminal offenses in Arlington are Black, and most are charged with minor misdemeanors—things like trespassing, disorderly conduct, failure to state your name. There’s no evidence that this type of over-policing and “broken-windows policing” actually leads to a reduction in larger crimes. There just isn’t much crime in Arlington. But there’s an exceptionally well-funded police department, to the tune of $70 million a year. There’s too much money and not enough for them to do. More than 90% of encounters initiated by police here are for minor offenses.

I don’t like the term “defund the police.” It doesn’t accurately describe what it’s proposing. You’re not getting rid of the institutions that are keeping your community safe. Rather, you’re investing farther upstream in crime-prevention programs that actually work—reducing poverty, treating mental illness and substance abuse issues, establishing alternative penalties for small crimes.

Did you know there’s no long-term substance abuse treatment program operated and funded by our county? The only one that exists is in the jail. So if you require more than 30 to 60 days of treatment, you’re going to go to jail. What if we could reallocate, say, $5 million from the police department and fund a long-term substance abuse treatment program through Arlington’s Department of Human Services?

We’ve created a culture in which we rely far too much on police and prisons to solve social problems. The wealthy White people in Arlington don’t like to see homeless men sleeping near a bus stop, or hanging out in a park.

Police know that—and with an array of misdemeanor offenses at their disposal that effectively criminalize homelessness and mental illness, it isn’t difficult to use policing to make “problems” less visible to the more privileged part of the community. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. We send the police to avoid the harder fix.


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Amanda Taylor. Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Amanda Taylor, 44, is assistant vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at American University, where her research and teaching focus on the intersection of race, culture and education. She lives in Arlington Heights with her husband and their two sons.

Arlington is a community of care with progressive policies. We fund our schools well, have an overall diverse population, get positive feedback from each other. But we’re a community that’s susceptible to performative allyship. We make sure other people see us as “woke” without necessarily doing the hard work to dismantle the racist systems we interact with on a daily basis.

By “we,” I mean White, liberal Arlingtonians, and I include myself in that group. I continually check myself on this. Racist ideas are so baked into our culture that it’s easy for White people to overlook them.

Committing publicly to your values and signaling you care by, say, putting up a Black Lives Matter yard sign or wearing a T-shirt—these are actually good things to do. Where it becomes performative is when we want to be seen as good people but we’re not really interested in examining the systems that privilege us. It’s not a problem on its own; it’s a problem if that’s where it stops.

The harder work is digging in and asking, for example: What does racism look like in our schools—both between schools and within schools? Free and reduced-lunch numbers in North versus South Arlington—they’re not based on chance. They stem from a history of neighborhood redlining and residential exclusion.

People often talk about what’s a “good school” and what’s a “bad school” when deciding where to buy a home. We have test score data as a benchmark of school status, but we know that tests are racially biased. The data mask a lot of other important dynamics. We talk about walkability to school being key, but walkability and the makeup of our neighborhoods are based on histories of racial segregation.

So how does someone with privilege and power move beyond performative allyship? They might urge the Arlington School Board to vote for a school boundary map that desegregates schools rather than, say, prioritizing walkability for their own kid.

Black and Latinx students have had to give up the comfort and convenience of walkability since the beginning of desegregation, which ultimately closed many Black schools and asked Black students to integrate into White schools. (This, by the way, often eliminated jobs for Black principals and Black teachers, and negatively impacted teaching styles that had been affirming to Black students.)

White parents also need to think differently about sharing resources and opening space for everyone—giving up our sense that White people deserve more, that our own kids deserve better because they worked harder or are smarter. Intelligence is equally distributed across all so-called racial groups. Full stop. When you see racial disparities in gifted programs, that’s an example of systemic racism—which is often unconscious.

I have two biracial sons who attend APS schools. Early in my older son’s elementary school years, kids identified as gifted were often pulled out of class to go and work with the gifted coordinator. One day, as the kids watched their classmates leave the room, the Latina girl who sat next to my son turned to him and said, “I guess you have to be White and blond to be smart.”

It starts that early. I don’t think their teacher or gifted coordinator had any active racist intentions or beliefs, but kids that young are already absorbing the false message that the White kids are the smart kids; the Black and brown kids aren’t.

These outcomes are rarely the result of conscious racist intentions among teachers and administrators. Rather, it’s the taken-for-granted everyday practices, policies and procedures that we don’t see as racial but that produce racialized outcomes.

All young people deserve a challenging, rigorous, interesting education. When we see racial disparities like this, it’s important to stop, point them out and come together to envision solutions that are equitable for all students.

Related stories:

Are There Two Arlingtons?
Race & Equity Essay Series
Slave Ships Arrive in Virginia Square

Categories: Community