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Former Va. governor’s appearance on Grounds draws backlash over allegations of racism

George Allen met with conservative-minded students at an event that evoked concern from minority students on Grounds

<p>George Allen served as governor of Virginia from 1994 to 1998 and talked to students about lessons he has learned from his long career in politics.</p>

George Allen served as governor of Virginia from 1994 to 1998 and talked to students about lessons he has learned from his long career in politics.

Republican politician and former Virginia Gov. George Allen addressed students Wednesday night at an event co-hosted by College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom, where Allen reflected on the lessons he has learned throughout his life in politics. This reflection included acknowledging Allen’s history of racial insensitivity, which drew concern from minority student leadership at the University.

Allen has notably faced sharp criticism for a racially offensive remark he made when he referred to an opposing candidate’s Indian-American volunteer with a racial slur in 2006. He has also been criticized for opposing the recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a state holiday during his time in Virginia’s government. 

Allen’s career in politics includes serving as Virginia’s governor from 1994 to 1998. Allen later represented Virginia in the U.S. Senate from 2001 to 2007. He also served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, then in the U.S. House of Representatives for the 7th Congressional District. 

In anticipation of Allen’s lecture, the Asian Leaders Council issued a statement drawing attention to what the organization described as Allen’s “long history of racist comments and beliefs.” In a written statement to The Cavalier Daily, Vilas Annavarapu, a third-year College student and ALC chair, said the ALC’s statement had two goals — to contextualize aspects of Allen’s past that were overlooked by CRs and YAF, and to emphasize the significance of denouncing white supremacy. 

“It is incredibly disappointing that the College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom failed to reach out to minority organizations about their event or in any way attempt to contextualize Allen’s comments,” ALC said in the statement posted to its Facebook page. “This is not an issue of politics, but a problem of historic erasure. White supremacy does not just exist in the form of neo-nazi rallies, but in the political actions taken by individuals of power. Those responsible for perpetuating it do not deserve a platform at this University.”

Robert Andrews, a fourth-year College student and chairman of College Republicans, said Allen’s past remarks did not preclude him from being an appropriate speaker.

“Quite honestly, if people don’t want a successful governor and a good representative of his constituents to come to speak at the University of Virginia, I don’t give a damn,” Andrews told The Cavalier Daily.

Allen spoke in detail to the 20-person audience on his work in areas of education and welfare reform. As governor, he implemented measures to track educational achievement in Virginia public schools. He reformed Virginia’s welfare system by adding a 35-hour-per-week work requirement for individuals who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

His years of experience in politics inspired the seven main ideas Allen communicated to students — leading with integrity, standing up for positive change, keeping promises, compromising with the opposing party, praying through difficult decisions, building a team and keeping his team motivated. He related these values to Republican politics, referring to himself as a “common-sense, ‘Jeffersonian’ conservative.”

“My general view is anybody who pays taxes, works for a living or cares about their family ought to be on our side,” Allen said to the group. “So I think we need candidates who are not narrow … and [who are] welcoming to expand the party.”

Allen connected the issue of polarizing politics to the deadly white supremacist Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville in August 2017. He insisted the right-wing extremists who hosted and partook in the rally “have no place in the Republican party.” 

“We stand for individual freedom. We stand for individual liberty,” Allen said. “We want a government that is on the side of the free enterprise system, because we think that is the best way for finding opportunities and success and innovation and creativity and ingenuity.”

During a question-and-answer session, Annavarapu asked Allen to address his lack of support for the establishment of  Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday.  Allen acknowledged that his decision was a mistake and recalled his later experience on a Civil Rights Pilgrimage that gave him a greater understanding of the movement’s significance.

Annavarapu had attended the event to receive an explanation for the controversial decision from Allen. Afterwards, in a statement posted to Facebook, Annavarapu said Allen’s apology and condemnation of neo-Nazis may not excuse his past actions, but were important steps in the right direction.

“I believe in context,” Annavarapu added in his statement to The Cavalier Daily. ”I believe in accountability. I don't believe in the platforming of certain speakers simply because they at once occupied a position of power. As students, we are taught to be critical and to be thoughtful in that critique. ALC's statement, my presence at the event, and my follow up all fall in line with this manner of thoughtful, informed critique.”

In response to the initial statement from ALC, Allen apologized for what he called an “unfortunate mischaracterization” of his past comments.

“I would never intentionally ever want to insult anyone on account of their ethnicity, their race, their religion or their gender,” Allen said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. 

Kevin McMahon, a fourth-year College student and chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, admitted he expected a more active protest at the event. However, he said the organizations hosting Allen didn’t need the approval of other groups.

“As independently contracted organizations, CIOs at U.Va., we don’t necessarily have to go to other organizations to make sure that they’re O.K. with who we might want to bring into our own clubs,” McMahon told The Cavalier Daily. 

Before the meeting, the crowd was told anyone who planned to interrupt the event in protest would be in violation of University policy and would be escorted from the venue by the University Police Department. No such interruption occurred.