April 3, 2024 | Reading Time: 7 minutes

How a little girl named Virginia promotes Christian nationalism 

Promoting white supremacy on the down-low, writes Claire Potter.

A sculpture of Virginia Dare imagined as an adult woman, done in Carrera marble by Boston sculptor Maria Louisa Lander in 1859. It is on display at the Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo, on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Photo credit: DrStew82/ Wikimedia Commons
A sculpture of Virginia Dare imagined as an adult woman, done in Carrera marble by Boston sculptor Maria Louisa Lander in 1859. It is on display at the Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo, on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Photo credit: DrStew82/ Wikimedia Commons

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Editor’s note: I’m sending the following to subscribers only. It first appeared in Political Junkie, Claire’s newsletter. –JS

Some people are on Twitter because they claim it has news value: not me. But when it comes to keeping up with the extremist right, Twitter is without peer. 

For example, only on Twitter can you wake up on Easter to find disinformation operatives tearing their hair out because President Joe Biden has “declared” that Transgender Awareness Day should coincide with one of the holiest days of the year. (Reader alert: Transgender Awareness Day is always on March 31; it’s the resurrection of Christ that changes.) 

And apparently only on Twitter can you learn — also on Easter — that the foundation that supports the anti-immigrant web publication VDare.com is being sued by Attorney General Letitia James in her scandalous ongoing effort to make extremists — like Donald Trump and the NRA — follow the law. 

A little-known lawsuit by New York’s Letitia James against the notorious VDare Foundation reveals how a white supremacist movement expands without ever saying the words “white supremacy.”

But that’s not what you will hear from VDare.com. A site that takes its name from a mythic 16th-century child long associated with white supremacy, publisher Peter Brimelow declared on Good Friday, is the victim of a “crucifixion” orchestrated “by New York State’s communist Attorney General Letitia James.” 

Keep in mind that Good Friday is the moment on the Christian calendar when celebrants worldwide memorialize the actual crucifixion of the actual Christ. 

But it gets better. 

In an earlier post, VDare.com writer Patrick Cleburne (which may be a pseudonym: it’s also the name of a Confederate general, and I cannot find a journalist with that name cited anywhere else) characterizes James’s legal action as a “lynching.”

You may have never heard of VDare.com, but I’m sure you recognize the tactics: religious martyrdom summons the Christian nationalists. Then a group of wealthy white people claim to be victims of a hideously violent crime that has historically been almost exclusively used to terrorize Black people. This signaling summons white supremacists more generally, binding them together in the Christian nationalist cause.

Together, they are stronger. Of course, Brimelow’s site is already a magnet for white supremacists, and it was deliberately named “VDare” to perform that function. The reference is to Virginia Dare, the first English (white) child born in North America. 

Sadly, for little Virginia, her mother gave birth in 1587 in Roanoke colony, an island in what is now North Carolina’s Outer Banks, also known as the Lost Colony. An enterprise promoted by Sir Walter Raleigh, the colony quickly became a victim of what you might call poor imperial planning. 

European survival in the New World depended on a combination of successful navigation of Native American hostility, agricultural skill among the colonists (many of whom had never grown anything — Virginia Dare’s father was a bricklayer) and a shipping system that was interrupted by yet another war with Spain. 

Arguably, someone should have anticipated the Spain problem: that empire had been colonizing the Americas for about a hundred years by 1587, and its rulers funneled much of the money into losing wars intended to dominate all continental Europe.

To summarize: when an English resupply mission finally returned to Roanoke colony in 1590, everyone was gone, and to this day, no one knows why. Someone left a note carved into a tree, but that led nowhere. Disease and starvation are possibilities, since the environment was challenging, and the group arrived in late summer when little could be planted. White colonists’ legendary failure to work may also have contributed to the problem: it was an issue that also plagued Jamestown, the next English experiment in North American living. Being killed by indigenous Algonquins was also a reasonable possibility: the group had hardly been there more than a few weeks when they began to have conflict with the locals. 

But strangely, there were no bodies in the settlement, and some of the houses had been dismantled and carried off. Although no one knows, evidence suggested that little Virginia and her comrades had split up and gone elsewhere, possibly seeking shelter with different indigenous groups and throwing in their lot with them. 

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This is where the white deer myth comes from: one legend to emerge from the lost colony is that two Native American men fought over Virginia’s affections, one turned her into a white doe to protect her, and the other — not knowing the white doe was Virginia — shot her. And since then, Virginia roams the landscape in the form of a white doe.

In real history, little Virginia may have died as a child, or she may have survived and had Native American children whose descendants walk the earth today. But in the mythic histories that dog our nation’s past, Virginia Dare became an enduring symbol of innocent, white womanhood and a touchstone for white supremacist thought. 

Here’s an example: Roanoke became the site of a thriving freedmen’s colony during the Civil War and a possible site for an island of independent, Black landowners. But like numerous places in the postwar South, by 1867 the freedpeople were evicted and the land largely reverted to white people who had owned it before the war. Facing a return to peonage, most Black workers were forced off the island or left to seek an independent livelihood elsewhere. 

And this is where we begin to see the myth of Virginia Dare putting its stamp on the modern United States. In 1870, the whitening of the island became official when it was wrapped into a new county named after — you guessed it — Virginia Dare! Not surprisingly, in 1896, as the lynching of Black southerners in the name of preserving the purity of white womanhood, and white women’s craze for building Confederate monuments, peaked, the Roanoke Island Memorial Association enshrined Virginia as the island’s secular patron saint.

Ironically, Virginia Dare — a chid who was undoubtedly a grubby little thing in her short lifetime (since most colonists were) and a person who possibly participated in an interracial relationship — was resurrected again, this time as a national brand that symbolized purity. 

By the 1870s, smokers could purchase Virginia Dare tobacco. The New Jersey-based Virginia Dare company, founded in 1923, still makes industrial food flavorings, syrups, extracts and colors. Dubbed “the first lady of the land” and pictured as the adult she never became, Virginia also adorned the label of a soda pop line marketed by the company. And during Prohibition, someone marketed Virginia Dare alcohol-free wine.

White supremacist politics also required marketing, while marketing products as healthful and pure under Virginia Dare’s name made white supremacy normal. In both cases, female images bolstered ideas about a natural racial order that put the white “race” on top. Note that the “Aunt Jemima” pancake flour logo featuring a subservient, beaming and equally mythical “mammy” was also born in 1888. Similarly, in 1920, a group of white Raleigh, North Carolina women who opposed women’s suffrage, because it opened the door to Black voting, did so in the name of Virginia Dare. 

The truth of VDare.com and its foundation is that no one can, or does, summon the name of Virginia Dare without intentionally bringing this history, and its racist insinuations, to the table. Peter Brimelow and his merry gang are no exception to this rule. Not surprisingly, although Brimelow claims to be not a bigot but a persecuted purveyors of fact and dissenting opinion, VDare.com has consistently platformed and promoted authors commonly associated with white nationalism, antisemitism and scientific racism.

Brimelow’s writers have included Patrick J. Buchanan, Michelle Malkin, Kevin DeAnna (who writes as James Kirkpatrick) and John Derbyshire. Derbyshire owns the almost unique distinction of having been fired by National Review for racism. Trump advisor Stephen Miller (now the head of America First Legal, which files lawsuits to dismantle civil rights initiatives and protections, is said to have cited articles from VDare.com in his years as an aide to former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions.

And if that doesn’t persuade you that VDare.com may be a site written for white supremacists, this might. In 2020, Peter Brimelow sued the Times in New York’s Southern District for calling him an “open white supremacist” — and lost.

The effects of VDare.com are vertical, in that it funnels white supremacy upward into legitimate institutions. But they are also horizontal, in the sense that the site coordinates and blends extremist tendencies like anti-Black racism with anti-immigration ideology. 

This aggregates two overlapping, but separate, ideological audiences into single, more powerful political movement. As the Southern Poverty Law Center puts it, it “has provided a crucial bridge between the more mainstream anti-immigrant movement, including major players in the Republican Party, and the white nationalist fringe.” 

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One might say, however, #NotAllImmigrants, since VDare.com was founded and is currently edited by Brimelow, a naturalized citizen from England and former editor of National Review and Fortune, as is one of his leading writers, John Derbyshire. But this too suggests that the point of VDare.com is broader than a phrase like America First describes. 

“England” and “Virginia Dare” are both coded language for “white,” lining the United States to its white English heritage, and everyone who reads VDare.com knows that, despite its stated focus on keeping the US free of immigrants, the website is really a platform for an international white supremacist movement.

So is Letitia James going after VDare.com and the foundation that supports it, which are incorporated in New York State, because they are white supremacist? Yes and no. 

Yes, because James has certainly made racial justice prominent in a broad litigation agenda. The struggle between James and Brimelow is another chapter in an established legal strategy which had successfully defunded rightwing groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the National Rifle Association by lawsuits which bankrupt them, expose their leadership as grifters, and serve as conduits for funneling dark money to extremists. 

And no, because, although the state’s case against Brimelow’s various vehicles (there are almost half a dozen financial nonprofits through which donor money flows) has not been widely reported on, James is investigating donor fraud and possible violations of federal and state tax law. 

And James is still at the investigation stage. The only reason anyone is in court this spring is because the foundation is preemptively suing James for having subpoenaed, in 2022, a range of documents that would reveal the nature of Brimelow’s business dealings, the VDare Foundation’s dark money donors, and the possible personal use of foundation funds and properties for his personal benefit. 

James alleges, for example, that Brimelow and his wife Lydia may be using an estate in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, incorporated by Lydia Brimelow as the nonprofit Berkeley Castle Foundation, as their primary residence. This would violate federal tax law. The Castle itself is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is “said to have been inspired by Berkeley Castle of Gloucestershire, England.”

Which is all to say that, in a twist that repeats itself over and over on the extremist right, white supremacists also have a tendency to be grifters

But it also exposes how ordinary language and historical narratives, and the ideas of “Englishness” and whiteness that the Virginia Dare brand promotes, are used to promote white supremacy without ever saying white supremacy. 

Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.

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