Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The mighty Amazon this month gave $100,000 to a grateful Arlington County Board to support the racial equity effort it approved one year ago.

A new Chief Race and Equity Officer is now coordinating a government and community push to equalize access to our good life.

This comes as the county is simultaneously considering renaming Lee Highway and certain parks and schools to remove vestiges of slavery. Also under review: police reform proposed by Arlington for Justice, segregated housing patterns, Arlington House as the county logo and racial bias in schools.

It’s an astonishing confluence of events amidst a pandemic, protests in the streets and a high-stakes national election. Hardly tranquil times.

I asked players in this multi-tiered drama whether Arlington has entered an era of vast social change.

“For too long, communities have avoided addressing race for fear that the time was not quite right, or because acknowledging the role of race and other socio-economic characteristics in life outcomes would reveal inconvenient truths that would necessitate action,” said county board member Christian Dorsey. “That there are many fronts where race is being addressed is indicative of the need for systemic change. The time to do this work has always been ‘now,’ and I have every expectation that growing awareness and facilitating dialogue throughout our community while building the capacity of government to remediate race-based inequities is how this moment produces structural change.”

Also enthused is Steve Hammond, the historian of the Syphax family who is working to persuade Congress to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from Arlington House, where his ancestors were enslaved.

“It’s about time!” he told me. “These issues have been simmering for decades just below our society’s collective willingness to confront them. The flash point was the recorded May 25th killing of George Floyd on a public street. This death, compounded with other recent deaths of black citizens, strikes at the nerve of systematic racism and inequality that has existed in this country since its inception. Young and old alike have been ‘woke’ and begun to use peaceful protests to demand change and to take a hard look at symbols and institutions that represent inequity.”

Palma Strand, who spent years organizing the Challenging Racism workshops, added that “in 2020, systemic racism has come into focus through the disproportionate effects of Covid-19 on poor people and people of color.”

Whytni Kernodle, president of Black Parents of Arlington, has been confronting a “systemic racism” her group believes shows up in a failure of schools to police racial name-calling and widen minority access to gifted programs.

The Black Lives Matter movement has made change timely, she said. Her biggest indicator is her conversations on racism with a longtime friend. That friend said she used to “pat herself on the back for being a well-intentioned white woman.” But in reality, this friend “realized she had no problem capitalizing on white supremacy.”

Kernodle said “liberals who believe themselves progressives have begun unwrapping their own racist beliefs,” some making the necessary changes in their own lives to acknowledge that this country was “built on the contributions of black people,” she added. “That means concentrating voluntarism on confronting anti-black racism” and focusing on the “wellness of black people.”

Former school board member David Foster said he hopes that “substance will take precedence over symbolism. Closing achievement gaps in our schools is a higher priority to me than renaming highways.”


A big dust-up on whether to crack down on leaf blowers erupted online last week on Nextdoor. Leslie Aun complained about noise and pollution that have hampered her and her family working from home during the pandemic. She revived an existing Change.org petition to ban gas-powered blowers and won 400 signatures.

Opponents (not all of them civil) blasted back, citing the speed and convenience of those machines, on which both homeowners and landscape crews depend, as well as “freedom” from state dictates. Who will invent the quiet leaf blower?