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How a MAGA School-Board Racial “Scandal” in Virginia Belly Flopped

Fox News charged reverse discrimination against Asians. Some candidates ran on it. They all lost. And the story wasn’t true.

GOP Governor Glenn Youngkin
Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images
GOP Governor Glenn Youngkin at a campaign stop in Bristow, Virginia, during Tuesday’s election, when the Republicans got clobbered

A year ago, Fox News and other Fox-adjacent outlets broke a story alleging reverse discrimination in Virginia high school admissions, with Asians as the purported victims. It was based on complaints by a parent of a student at the elite Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Fairfax. The beef was that the school had failed to notify families of their students’ receipt of National Merit Scholarship awards in time for the awards to be reported on college early admission forms. The excuse was rumored to be not wanting to discomfort those who had received no awards, allegedly Black students. The implication was that some perverse anti-racist policy was being followed to protect the self-esteem of a bunch of underachievers who, by Fox’s lights, probably didn’t belong at “T.J.” in the first place.

The hoked-up scandal took on the rubric of a “war on merit” that aimed to reignite the old affirmative action debates. A parents’ group sued the Fairfax County School Board. Governor Glenn Youngkin sprang into action, charging the school board with an undue interest in “equal outcomes.” Our MAGA state attorney general promised an investigation. Local activists performed umbrage over anti-Asian racism. George Will got into the act.

Coverage of the story by the local Sinclair outlet—WJLA TV, the local ABC affiliate—was especially craven. Inserted into the stories were references to contracts the Fairfax School Board had taken on with vendors selling advice on diversity policy. Virginia Republicans’ efforts to fold “equal outcomes” outrage into the story were indulged by WJLA.

The Washington wingnut press jumped in, accusing school board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer of holding a “leftist agenda.” The local Fox News channel recruited parents to demand the resignation of the county superintendent, Michelle Reid. Another board member was attacked by outlets as distant as the New York Post and the Daily Mail of Great Britain for comments about World War II.

In the end, all of this sturm und drang came to … precisely nothing. No state investigation found anything untoward had happened, and Democrats absolutely swept the Fairfax County School Board elections. (Our attorney general’s crusades seem timed to bracket elections. An investigation is announced before one, and the failure to bear any fruit does not come to light until the election has been conducted.)

The fact is that there was never any evidence that the delays in notification (which also occurred at other schools) were anything but the fault of local school administrators. There was no evidence that they had any sort of racial motive, nor that they were school or county policy.

On top of that, the awards in question were “commendations,” not the top National Merit Scholar awards, which could explain the lack of urgency on the schools’ part. TJHSST students did not appear to be overly perturbed. As students noted in their school newspaper:

A commendation’s ability to affect college admissions is also questionable—a PSAT commendation serves little use when most colleges use SAT or ACT scores to gauge students’ standardized testing abilities.

As for merit, it’s recognized at Jefferson, but a commendation on the PSAT is not considered a high-merit achievement, at least among most students. Here, a highly-merited distinction is launching a satellite into space or winning a national science fair award. At a school where the 2020 SAT average was 1,528, a PSAT commendation is seen as just the norm.

The charge that the school board was targeting Asian students for the sake of indulging people of color could provoke skepticism in light of the fact that the TJHSST student body was 54 percent Asian, down from 70 percent, after a modest increase in African American and Latino students. It is true that the school board was motivated to promote diversity at TJHSST, in the same way that universities have done—by not limiting admissions criteria to grades and test scores.

The “war on merit” campaign followed the fuss over the purported instruction in critical race theory in Virginia public schools in 2021. Loudoun County (where I live) was one of the original sources of that flap. While it may have helped elect Glenn Youngkin to the governor’s office in 2021, over the past year it has scarcely been mentioned here. The blue-to-red flip in the state legislature in 2021 was reversed this week.

The Republicans’ big thing in Virginia this year has been “abortion at birth,” their attempt to paint pro-choice people as way out of the mainstream. This of course is not a thing, and even so, it has failed as an election issue absolutely everywhere in the United States, including in red states. In light of the repeated failure of its extreme pro-life posture at the polls, where the GOP goes from here is an open question.

In the previous century, the reverse-discrimination game was run for the edification of the Jews. Excessive representation of Jews in elite Ivy League universities was simultaneously denounced by self-designated victims as well as by Jews who resented the resentment. In the end, the political allegiance of Jews remained disproportionately Democratic, if not liberal.

Fairfax County is one of the chief repositories of Democratic votes in Virginia. By all appearances, its Asian voters are at least as smart about right-wing gaslighting as Jews have been in the past.