by Noah Bate and Mike Dooley
Barack Obama made history in 2008 and became the first Democrat to carry the county in more than 50 years. When he was inaugurated in 2009, you wouldn’t find a single mosque in Henrico County, Virginia. The year before, the county government rejected a rezoning request to allow for the construction of Henrico’s first Islamic center. Many Henrico leaders always found a legal way to keep mosques out of the county.
This decision was overturned in 2011 after Eric Holder’s Justice Department began an investigation into civil rights violations. Henrico also changed the language in its zoning ordinance, for instance replacing “church” with “place of worship.”  Despite this victory, an appeal was submitted earlier this year to block a second Islamic center, currently under construction. The County Board unanimously rejected the appeal on June 12.  A third mosque is in the planning phase.
County criticisms of these mosques are often made as complaints about noise or “aesthetic standards,” but a clear sense of discomfort with the idea of Muslim neighbors pervades these arguments. Sylvia Hoehns Wright, who lives near one of mosques under construction, couches her arguments in terms of “intensity of activity” and a lack of parking spaces.  Posts from right-wing websites like these clearly illustrate the fear the Muslim immigrants will impose their values on the surrounding community, or will not live up to standards of behavior. Even Ms. Wright, who is careful not to stray too close to xenophobia, calls it a “monstrous project.”
This hostility is predictable given Henrico County’s long history as a right-wing bastion. Republican presidential candidates have long taken Henrico’s support for granted.  In fact, before 2008, it had not swung for a Democrat in over 50 years. For the old-guard of white conservatives, it must seem that their world is coming apart. Not only are thousands of African Americans from Richmond moving to the suburbs, but the county has also become one of America’s newest immigration hubs. When the sensitive topic of religion is mixed in, worries about a loss of community identity can turn toxic.
There are over 4,000 Muslims in Henrico County  and between 10-20,000 in the metropolitan area of Virginia’s capital, Richmond.  Between 2005 and 2010, the percentage of the US population that moved from abroad in the last year has stayed fairly constant at .6%. Henrico, on the other hand, has seen a massive jump, from .6% to a whopping 1.4%. This places it ahead of even famous immigration centers like Queens, New York.  While many long-term residents may be fearful of changing demographics, others will welcome Obama’s shift on immigration issues. We can expect a close and unpredictable race in Henrico County.
Henrico County’s changing population goes well beyond Islam. Along with a growth in its African American population, Henrico’s Asian and Hispanic communities more than doubled in size between 2000 and 2010.
American Community Survey, 2010 1-year estimates.