There was a time when I didn’t feel like Virginia was part of the South.
When I was nine, I moved from the Philippines to Reston, a town in Northern Virginia. My first neighbor and friend was a Sikh girl. As I grew up, I assumed that every middle and high school in the country had a Muslim students’ association; that Spanish was a language you’d hear routinely in the hallways on the way to class; that immigrants were largely embraced and absorbed into the fabric of America; that interracial couples were something you barely batted an eye at. Whatever I learned about the Civil War and the Confederacy, my part of Virginia seemed to defy.
Except that it didn’t. My middle school was named for Langston Hughes, but other schools in the area were named for Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. When my high school basketball team, which had a mix of black, white, and Latinx players, faced off against one of the whiter schools, we would hear chants from their student section calling us “ghetto.” The taunt was explicitly racial—our county, after all, was among the most affluent in the nation.
I looked at these things as incidental back then: mere vestiges of the past trickling into contemporary Virginia. But as the terrible events of Charlottesville—a supposedly progressive place that also contains a statue of Lee, a symbol of white supremacy potent enough to draw fascists to its streets—illuminated, the battle for Virginia’s soul is as fierce as ever. A look at the state’s history shows that this has been true for generations.
Virginia’s historical importance and symbolism as the seat of the Confederacy has made it both a literal and a figurative rallying point for white nationalists across the U.S. And the state’s rapidly changing demographics represent everything they fear about America’s future, all but guaranteeing that it will continue to be a battleground between the progressive left and the so-called alt-right. Noted white supremacist and University of Virginia graduate Richard Spencer probably summed this up best when he said of Charlottesville, “There is no way in hell I’m not going back.”
Virginia’s contradictions are everywhere once you start to look. One in nine of its residents is an immigrant, and liberal Northern Virginia is driving much of the state’s population and economic growth. But, as the former capital of the Confederacy, the state also contains more Confederate markers—223—than any other in America, and it has among the highest number of hate groups in the nation, per the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate map. This includes 11 white nationalist groups, 8 of which call Northern Virginia, the place I grew up in and idealized, home. Among them: Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute.
As historian and Civil War expert Dr. Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina told me, Northern Virginia has been a cultural battleground since the 19th century.
“It was a deeply fragmented society,” he said. Quakers, Dunkers, and other white people who didn’t support secession or the Confederacy called that part of the state home. It’s important to remember this fragmentation existed: without it, Brundage pointed out, you don’t need Confederate monuments to act as a bonding agent, a kind of white supremacy glue.
“They were erecting Confederate monuments not in places where everyone was committed to the Confederacy by any means,” said Brundage. Anti-Lincoln Democrats— that is, white Southern elites—were trying to create monuments that suggested that Northern Virginia’s white people “were passionately and uniformly committed to the Confederacy,” Brundage added, manufacturing “a kind of white solidarity that hadn’t existed during the Civil War.”
To put it another way, those initial monuments were both revisionist history and an attempt to rebrand the war and the state as a sort of white Confederate haven.
It’s important to remember that this is what those who would cling to “tradition” and “heritage” would protect: a lie, albeit, a lie that has come to characterize Virginia’s physical and cultural landscape.
Brundage told me that Virginia’s “dense, monumental landscape,” is what separates it from states like Texas and North Carolina, which also find themselves in the middle of a demographic transformation. That Confederate landscape extends from urban to rural areas, from the state’s mountains to its tidewater basin, including the Lee statue in Charlottesville, as well as “Monument Avenue” in Richmond and the “Johnny Reb” statue in Norfolk, and hundreds of battlefields, highways, roads, and plaques in between.
Virginia’s position in the Civil Rights Movement is similarly complicated. It had the same white supremacist politicians that existed elsewhere in the South—most famously, Harry Byrd Sr., who served as both governor and senator and who advocated “massive resistance” to integration. But the state also played a key role in advancing civil rights—ironically, through the very same courthouses that many of Virginia’s Confederate monuments were erected in front of.
Virginia hosted no major marches that we remember today. Nor was it the site of a national tragedy like the bomb that tore through a Birmingham, AL church, killing six little black girls. But, according to the Virginia Historical Society, the NAACP filed more lawsuits in Virginia than any other state during the Civil Rights era, yielding landmark victories that desegregated interstate bus travel, schools, juries, and allowed for interracial marriage. Those victories helped to redefine and reshape broad swaths of the state, but they are mostly consigned to textbooks, if they are there at all.
Still, it’s the shadow of the Confederacy looms largest in the state.
“So much of the Civil War that has been commemorated happened right there in Virginia,” Brundage said. “It’s going to be a bigger [fight] in Virginia by definition just because of the sheer quantity of contested sites.”
Then there’s Virginia native Lee, who personified the Old South and around whose statue white supremacists of all stripes continue to mobilize. Long before HBO greenlit Confederate, Southerners embraced Lee as the center of their own alternate histories. It was only natural that a group of men and women who feel threatened by the perceived erasure of their whiteness, who idealize a culture of unchallenged white privilege, would return to Charlottesville, to an institution that once venerated that privilege and to the statue of a man who has long been an icon of it.
Lee’s genteel background, aristocratic manner, and commitment to post-war reconciliation continue to make him a palatable historic icon for the sorts of defenders of Southern heritage that don’t see themselves as racists. But Brundage points out that if you’re a white nationalist committed to the preservation of a white ethno-state against seemingly insurmountable odds, Lee is also a great symbol.
“You can look at Lee and say well, if Lee had just had as many resources as Grant, if he had had the power of the union behind him, he would have whooped the Yankees,” said Brundage. “So then you can embrace him as the kind of heroic, Greek figure in the Greek tragedy. The outcome is inevitable but he postpones it as long as possible.”
This continuum of ideologies was, in part, what defined the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, and what continues to define the most rabid parts of Trump’s base. It’s striking how Trump reinforces the the bonds between these “oppressed” groups in much the same way that Confederate monuments reinforced the bonds of whiteness over a century ago. At his rally in Phoenix on Tuesday night, he made this explicit, saying, “They’re trying to take away our culture. They are trying to take away our history.”
“These groups can now see themselves as having a shared identity which is they are more or less in Trump’s orbit now,” said Brundage. “He has given them a kind of unity now as his foot soldiers if they want to embrace that, and I assume many of them will.”
Since Charlottesville, the response from most politicians has, on the surface, been heartening. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has called for the statues at Monument Avenue, in the old seat of the Confederacy, to be removed. This is no small feat. Those statues helped shape the very landscape of the city, demanding big green plots of land and roundabouts to accommodate them.
Still, I’ve found myself returning to the words of another Virginia politician, former governor and senator George Allen. In 2006, while campaigning for re-election in Southwestern Virginia, Allen singled out a South Asian volunteer for his opponent’s campaign who was at his rally.
“This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is,” said Allen, using a term that could refer to a monkey, or a racial slur used by some Europeans to denigrate African immigrants.
“He’s with my opponent. He’s following us around everywhere. And it’s just great,” Allen continued, to the delight of the crowd, before using the derogatory term again.
“Let’s give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.” he said. According to a Washington Post report of the rally, Allen then pivoted to the “war on terror.”
The young man to whom Allen was referring was a Virginia native, from the same county I’m from. I remember coming across the story back then—it quickly caught fire, and Allen was forced to apologize—and being amused by Allen’s boneheaded racism. It felt like a blip, a stain that would eventually wash from the fabric of a state marching toward a diverse and progressive future. Two years later, Virginia would vote for Barack Obama, turning the state blue for the first time since it elected Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Now those remarks feel like part of a continuum, a seemingly innocuous harbinger of what would come to pass in numerous MAGA rallies in Virginia and beyond. They were a pitting of an old America against a new one, forced to assert itself against a landscape that denies its right to exist. They were a continuation of a long war in Virginia that has no end in sight.
Update: An earlier version of this article said Virginia had the highest amount of hate groups per capita of any state in the nation. In fact, Idaho has a greater ratio.