Henrico County & the Myth of Meritocracy

I can’t imagine the brouhahah that erupted in western Henrico County over the showing of the video “Structural Discrimination: The Unequal Opportunity Race” ever happening at my daughter’s city school.

I guess in the city it’s harder to allow ourselves the luxury of denial. When teachers, students and parents struggle mightily every day to overcome the systemic disadvantages that affect children, the unequal opportunity race is hard to deny. It’s self evident.

I believe the Henrico County School Board made a mistake when it apologized for the Glen Allen High School’s Black History Month program, which featured the video about racial barriers to success.

In doing so, they accommodated the complaints of two self-described conservative activists (rightwing blogger Craig Johnson and Christian conservative Don Blake). These two individuals were the megaphones behind the “parent opposition.”

I wish that, instead of apologizing and suppressing discussion, school board leaders would seize this opportunity to encourage deeper education about the history of racial oppression in our region and our nation, and its continuing legacy.

I confess, over the years I’ve been struck more than once when meeting a smart young (white) adult who graduated from a western Henrico County public high school, by how little they seemed to know about the racial history of their region. I’ve wondered privately how educated, politically progressive young adults could possibly attend a public school ten miles from a major nexus of the national slave trade with so little consciousness of our region’s racial history—both distant and recent.

Let’s not forget, within living memory, Virginia’s legislature and governor were doing all within their power to preserve the Commonwealth’s systems of separate and undeniably unequal public education. Not long after, Richmond and the surrounding counties were the site of a major legal struggle for racial integration in education that proved decisive for the country as a whole. (In 1972 US District Judge Merhige ordered the consolidating of Henrico, Chesterfield and Richmond city schools, arguing that a merger of city and county schools was the only way the region could achieve racial integration. The decision was later overruled, resulting in our current system of complete separation–and extreme disparity–between city and county.)

That legal severing of city schools from county schools is part of what makes possible the persistence of the myth of race-blind meritocracy espoused by the conservative opponents of “The Unequal Opportunity Race” video. They claim there’s a level playing field in society, and that whether you succeed or fail is entirely up to you. They claim our society is free of racial barriers or white advantage. That, sadly, is a fantasy one can only maintain in a majority-white (though increasingly culturally diverse) middle class suburban world.

Kudos to the principal of Glen Allen High School for attempting to present a serious program and discussion about the unfairness in our society. Kudos to the countless committed, concerned, inclusive-minded students, parents students and community members in Henrico County and all over this region willing to consider how we might address and remedy those persistent inequalities.

More and more people in our region are coming to understand the importance of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic integration in our schools. We are coming to understand the importance of confronting the painful history of racial subjugation, discrimination and resistance upon which our region was built. And we want to, at long last, talk about it honestly….and stand together to make change.  –Adria Scharf