The alt-right and neo-Nazi protesters seem to have chosen Charlottesville, Virginia, as a gathering point this past weekend because of the controversy over the town’s Confederate statues and memorials. Whether they knew it or not, there is another reason the state is important: If Virginia can be shown to look like a hotbed of conflict and prejudicial discontent, the message will be that nowhere in America is safe. Virginia is where the U.S.’s recent experience with immigration arguably is most successful.
One way to measure the success of an integrated community is how quickly and deeply the newcomers become involved in the economy. Virginia has the highestlabor force participation rate for immigrants of any state, at 73 percent, above that of U.S.-born Virginians. From the 10 states with the most immigrants, Virginia has the highest share with a bachelor’s degree or higher. If you’re wondering, the state’s overall unemployment rate is 3.8 percent, below the national average, so it doesn’t seem immigrants are taking jobs away from natives.
I do understand the desire and indeed the need to show the Nazi and Confederate symbols from the march, so as to shock Americans out of their complacency. We also need to keep the more realistic and positive picture of Virginia in our minds.
“You won’t replace us” was a rallying cry for the protesters, but the Virginia multicultural model has augmented the prosperity of the native-born. Of the nation’s wealthiest 10 counties in terms of per capita income, five lie in the immediate proximity of Washington. About 22 percent of the population of Northern Virginia was born outside of the U.S.
Virginia is the location of the Pentagon, and military and national intelligence establishment have been a cash cow for the state. That has boosted prosperity and minimized cyclical downturns, two factors that help alleviate racial and interethnic tensions, in turn raising upward mobility for immigrants. The state has also encouraged real estate growth and created a favorable environment for small and midsize businesses. For all the criticism of ugly strip malls, they are an ideal place for immigrants to start a new business.
The result has been a strong upper middle class rather than a playground for billionaires. That offers immigrants a good chance to move up the social and income ladders fairly quickly.
Almost 70 percent of Virginia immigrants have settled in Northern Virginia, very close to Washington and Maryland. The D.C. metropolitan area, due to the primacy of politics, has attracted migrants and temporary residents for a long time, including American-born citizens from other states. There is little stigma to being an outsider or new arrival.
When I first moved to Northern Virginia in 1980, it was common to see Confederate flags and to hear “good ol’ boys” talk with racist overtones. Today the region is a multicultural success, has some of the best schools in the country, and is renowned for its globe-spanning ethnic food.
Another big part of the Virginia economy has been the significant naval presence in the Norfolk area. In addition to creating lots of jobs, the U.S. military long has been one of the most successfully integrated and tolerant institutions in the country, setting a good workplace and cultural precedent.
It also helps that Virginia’s immigrants are a mix of nationalities, with no one dominant ethnic group. That has encouraged broad-based assimilation, and prevented any single, easily identifiable group from being a source of social tensions.
There’s some debate whether Charlottesville is in fact part of “Northern Virginia” or still the “Old South.” Over time the city has become more professionally oriented, and the intellectual and cultural influence of the University of Virginia has grown. It is now common for people to commute from Charlottesville to the D.C. area, about a two-hour drive. About 9 percent of the population in the Charlottesville area is foreign-born. About 60 languages are spoken in the immediate area, and in 2015 the City Council declared Charlottesville to be a “welcoming city” for migrants. In 2014, economic researchers found Charlottesville to be America’s happiest city.
If you don’t know Virginia or Charlottesville well (I have lived about 30 years of my life in the area), you might think the region is being torn apart by the demons of its racial past and the heritage of slavery and discrimination. That’s far from the truth. Virginia life has many problems, and yes prejudice remains. But as a multiethnic society, it is an exemplar for America and indeed the world. It is also proof of how much a region can improve over a relatively short period of time.
Right now Virginia is under attack and, in addition to the violence, it is a war being fought with images and words. Let’s not forget the images of success.