The Masquerade of Identity Politics, Part Two

In Part One, I covered a quick review of a newly released book on tribalism and identity politics by Amy Chua, and promised some data of my own in the next installment.

I gathered the data from three different local “county” social media forums. Residents of Caroline County, for the most part, are reluctant to share political opinions on social media. When they do share, they are on personal pages and they are limited discussions within the confines of those friends. It is most unusual to find political issues on a group forum available to be read by thousands. Normally if anyone begins a post about national issues, members complain.

In Caroline, the 11th largest county in Virginia where there are two grocery stores (yes, two) and a church just about every square mile, most citizens who have lived here any length of time have learned that partisan politics isn’t a tool that works well in day to day life. There is one Little League, one community center, and one middle and high school. Those who get ugly with one another are liable to be sitting next to that person in the near future in church on Sunday, or shopping shoulder to shoulder in the same aisle in the grocery store, or sharing the bleachers at a ball game.

Much of the county’s centuries old agricultural community is still intact in enclaves throughout our large expanse of land. Today, not all these families still farm the land. Other professions have taken them outside the county, but they live on family land and are tied inexorably to the farming community. While they tend to be conservative, they are so strongly independent that no mere political party can hope to tell them how to live and conduct business.

One third of our county constitutes Fort A.P. Hill, taken by the federal government in 1941 (and the farmers moved off their land) for a training facility. This equates to 77,000 acres, removing it forever from the tax rolls.

Our newer subdivisions in the I-95 growth area are filled with a diverse mix of citizens, many drawn to Caroline by the low tax rate, reasonably priced houses, and proximity to the interstate. These residential developments are surrounded by greenspace as much of Caroline is still rolling fields and countryside offering the best of both worlds. New residents cite Caroline’s natural rural beauty as one of the reasons they chose to locate here.

Only about fifty percent of the newer residents in the western subdivisions venture into life or governance outside of the confines of the highway corridor. Traveling across even a portion of Caroline’s 528 square miles to, say, the town of Port Royal on the Rappahannock River would take 45 minutes. Therefore they have become their own community enclave and shop in one of those two grocery stores. When more is called for, they travel to Ashland or Fredericksburg. In eastern Caroline, residents often do business in King George or Tappahannock. Those in the south travel to Richmond.

Families that do venture forth have been a huge asset to our county and recent elections of new faces on the board here helps to foster closer connections. In 2015, one of those fairly new western Caroline housing developments provided a brand new member to our Board of Supervisors who has, to date, a stellar record of achievement and a heart for Caroline. He runs for office as an Independent.

This is not to say Caroline has not had its issues, but by and large when they do, it is a push or poke from the outside. Routinely, elected officials from other localities, developers, and such have taken for granted they can do as the please here, skirt or flat out ignore the rules, get caught, and throw a major hissy. The good news is the word is spreading that things have changed. We are growing by leaps and bounds with new business, while preserving the green space residents say they cherish.

The county is the poster child for the consequences of elections, in this case, in a good way. Between 2008 and 2015, the citizens sent home most of the old Board of Supervisors who had a personal stranglehold on the county for nearly 30 years, making decisions which directly benefited them. The result brought the county to the razor’s edge of bankruptcy, resulting in the payment of county employees and even basic monthly expenses on a credit card.

In the last two years, the county has ended the fiscal year with a surplus, and in addition has been able to do away with that six million dollar line of credit. They also were able to build a contingency fund, which most other neighboring counties have always maintained. This year, Caroline obtained its first bond rating and was named as number 10 in the state of localities where citizens receive the most for their tax dollars, and 34th in the nation. Presently, the board is made up of two Independents, two Democrats and two Republicans.

Earlier this month, the county signed a contract with the Department of Immigration and Naturalization to use what is commonly known as “the old jail” as a detention center for non-criminal illegal immigrants. When I beheld the reaction from some otherwise intelligent people from both sides of the political spectrum, I realized identity politics had done its job on at least some of our citizens.

In this case “fake news” was certainly initially not to blame. The newspaper did an excellent job in conveying the facts. The Peumansend Creek Regional Jail located on 150 acres at Fort A. P Hill closed last year when the contract with its participating localities was done at the 20-year period. The building, which has been pristinely maintained and looked more like a brand new facility than one built in 1998, fell to the ownership of Caroline County. Over 100 people, mostly county residents, lost their jobs.

The history of the jail is well remembered by older residents who fought its location in Caroline and lost. Then Senator John Warner essentially commandeered the land and located a new jail here for “overflow prisoners” from the localities of Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties, along with Alexandria and Richmond. Official protests made by the then Board of Supervisors and the elected bodies of both towns as well as citizens did not prevail. The facility held 336 inmates, with Caroline making use of only two beds. The 150 acres at Fort A. P. Hill were ultimately deeded to Caroline County by the federal government with the requirement that it be used for a correctional facility.

Participating localities over the last several decades built their own jail facilities, and after 20 years, the contract ended. Contrary to original expectation, the jail turned out to be a boon to Caroline County in more ways than one. This was a place where local people sought long term employment, and the staff there was written about in the media many times over the years for their deep involvement in community causes. If an organization needed help raising money or acquiring donations of items, the jail was the first stop on the list. Many people have been working there for over a decade and the entire staff contributed to community efforts.

When they closed, Superintendent Paul Perry described to the Free Lance Star newspaper another aspect that the jail had been lauded for: its treatment of prisoners and the unusual emphasis on what amounted to skills and hopes for re-entry into society:

“The jail has followed a unique approach in its nearly two decades of existence, offering inmates educational programs and job opportunities through Peumansend Creek Industries, which will close along with the jail.

“The work program allowed inmates to learn work skills by producing embroidery, silk-screens, and hygiene kits, which the jail sold. Inmates also resoled shoes and did printing and woodworking jobs. In 2004, the jail started a farming project, with inmates growing mainly potatoes, tomatoes, squash, and green beans.”

After the closure, the county engaged in year-long negotiations to save those 100 jobs, seeking a use for the facility with both the state and the federal government. Both the aforementioned entities actually looked at “taking” the building for purposes such as a holding facility for the mentally ill, sexual predators, and for hardened criminals, including MS-13 gang members.

Closing a jail which was not state owned was, in a very real sense, a case of charting new waters, and the original contract gave no instructions. The county was able to retain ownership of the building, and in early July settled on a contract with ICE for five years. The county was also able to retain the Jail Authority as an entity, so the reinstatement of the jobs is currently in process.

The center will house adult men and women who are illegal immigrants (not criminal) for up to 60 days. From the July 3rd edition of the Free Lance Star:

“The purpose of detention services at the Caroline Detention Facility is to assure illegal immigrants’ presence during their administrative hearing process and assure their presence for removal from the United States pursuant to a lawful final order by an Immigration Court, the Board of Immigration Appeals or other federal judicial body.”

If immigrants are released, according to the contract, they must be released at a major transportation hub, which does not include Caroline. When full, the county will receive $850,000 a year which will most likely be earmarked for capital projects. The press release appeared on July 3rd and subsequently in the newspaper with more fairly basic and straightforward information.

I expected a backlash as a number of people, when faced with an issue that they suddenly think directly affects them (especially in their backyard), conveniently lose their ability to reason or read, but it’s usually temporary. I was not prepared, however, for the toxic comments from both sides at the mention of the word “immigrant,” or assumptions and stories which were, frankly, fodder for the Twilight Zone.

Social media immediately filled with wildly incorrect information, ironically citing the links to the very press release and articles which refuted what they were posting. This subject is so emotionally polarizing that each social media conversation on the Caroline Community pages evolved into a discussion of national immigration policy by both the left and the right.

Despite the fact that it was pointed out over and over again that the county was not and could not make immigration policy, and that only the federal government could do so, not one poster was agreeable to contacting their Congressman. When asked if they thought anyone in Congress in a position to solve the immigration issue was reading these rather small community forums, no one cared. The “fight,” which is the hallmark of identity politics, was more important than seeking solutions.

The posting of at least some of the information was so fanatical and “out there,” again from both sides, I decided to keep a data spread sheet of my own to try and track just how far people were willing to go to disregard facts and logical thinking. In the long run, we are talking less than 40 people, not much in the overall scheme of things, but as we know, a few can create chaos for many.

In Part Three I’ll start to cover just how identity politics and its proponents can escalate a situation and what my five groups had to say.