Virginia governor, Republicans off to a rough start with ban on critical race theory

OPINION: Gov. Glenn Youngkin and other GOP leaders would do well to remember that Virginia is a deeply purple state and they do not have a mandate to run wild with far-right governance.

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin gives the inaugural address after being sworn in as the 74th governor of Virginia on the steps of the State Capitol on January 15, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

When I first read it, I did not think it could be real. I thought, “this has to be a parody, right”? 

It was not. Va. Del. Wren Williams, a freshman Republican, put forward a bill, House Bill 781, that was intended to ban so-called “divisive concepts” from being taught in Virginia public schools. It is, in short, an “anti-CRT” bill, which was the lynchpin of the Republicans’ path to victory in 2021. Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who was sworn in on Saturday, and Republicans statewide did a masterful job using the local school board rancor on teaching about racial history in Virginia as their No. 1 culture war mantra. 

The bill presented by Williams says: “A BILL to amend the Code of Virginia by adding a section numbered 22.1-208.03, relating to public elementary and secondary schools; student citizenship skills; certain instructional policies prohibited; parental rights; disclosures; penalties; other remedies.” Section B3 was the part of the bill that defined what could be taught in history classes, not the things that would be banned or the consequences teachers could face for teaching them, including prosecution and being fired.

It was there that Williams lost any credibility he may have had when he listed as one of the things the bill must enforce as allowable curriculum: the teaching of  “the founding documents,” like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, excerpts from the Federalist Papers, the writings of the Founding Fathers and Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic “Democracy in America.” And most importantly: “the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.” Wait. What? Huh?

Virginia Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears, a Republican, is sworn into office outside the state capital building in Richmond, Virginia on Jan. 15, 2021. (Credit: Screen VPM on YouTube)

Clearly, Williams was referring to the actual debates between then-Sen Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, who had a series of debates for the U.S. Senate in 1858. In a statement released by a spokesman for Williams, the state’s Division of Legislative Services took the blame for the error, according to the New York Times. No matter. This level of ignorance about American history has become standard for Lincoln’s Republican Party.

It was the same level of ignorance that was on display at a 2017 White House prayer breakfast with African-American supporters and clergy when then-President Donald Trump infamously said of Fredrick Douglass, who died in 1895, “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” This kind of ignorance at the presidential level is like nothing we have ever seen in our lifetimes. No Republican—not Nixon, Reagan, Bush ‘41 or Bush ‘43—ever made such ridiculous statements or trafficked in such ignorance when it came to America’s racial past and greatest heroes.

But this is our new normal, I am afraid. And it is a normal that is dividing us more deeply day by day. Williams is part of the new 21st century Republican—a low-information, culture warrior official elected by low-information voters. 

Virginia’s new governor gave a wonderfully uplifting and unifying inaugural address on Saturday, Jan 15, at the seat of the once capital of the Confederacy led by Jefferson Davis. Yet, Youngkin, a former business executive turned political newcomer, took note of the history of the day (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s actual 93rd birthday) by saying: 

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today and whose great life we celebrate Monday with a national holiday, once said, ‘We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.’ For us, that boat is named Virginia, and today we set sail to a new and better day. Since the founding of Jamestown a little more than 400 years ago, we’ve been an imperfect people on the course to a more perfect union. At times, we’ve failed to live up to our ideals. But we all want to do what is right and what is morally just even if we fall short. What is seared in our heart by a loving Almighty Creator is not a desire for power or conquest, not a love of self, or personal advancement.”

Powerful words from a new, and I had hoped center-right, Republican governor in the Old South. Youngkin is a family man of deep faith. A man who had HBCU choirs sing at his inauguration. A man who has three Black officials in his cabinet, a Black female lieutenant governor at his side and who led the Commonwealth in prayer with Indigenous tribal leaders blessing his new administration.

Unfortunately, Youngkin’s unifying rhetoric was then immediately called into question by Democrats, civil rights leaders and the media when the new governor, surrounded by his cabinet and leadership team, signed a series of 11 executive orders that did the following (the first four and the last executive directive on vaccines being the most controversial): 

  1. Executive Order #1 calls to restore excellence in education by ending the use of divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory, in public education.
  2. Executive Order #2 empower Virginia parents in their children’s education and upbringing by allowing parents to make decisions on whether their child wears a mask in school.
  3. Executive Order #3 restore integrity and confidence in the Parole Board of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
  4. Executive Order #4 to investigate wrongdoing in Loudoun County. 
  5. Executive Order #5 to make government work for Virginians by creating the Commonwealth Chief Transformation Officer.
  6. Executive Order #6 to declare Virginia open for business.
  7. Executive Order #7 to combat and prevent human trafficking and provide support to survivors.
  8. Executive Order #8 to establish a commission to combat antisemitism.
  9. Executive Order #9 to withdraw from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which he seems to have backed up from since Saturday. 
Executive Directives:
  1. Executive Directive #1 to jumpstart Virginia’s economy by cutting job-killing regulations by 25 percent.
  2. Executive Directive #2 to restore individual freedoms and personal privacy by rescinding the vaccine mandate for all state employees.

Of course, banning critical race theory and ending mask mandates is the governor’s prerogative. But what I would humbly advise is that the more inclusive he can be in discussing the best policy direction on masks,  COVID and teaching accurate racial history, the better off the Commonwealth of Virginia will be. 

The Virginia governor was falsely accused of doing away with the DEI officer cabinet post started by Gov. Ralph Northam when he came under fire for a “blackface” photo in his college yearbook in the 1980s. I happen to know who the choice is for the new DEI officer, and she is a very qualified woman of color who is conservative for sure, but she will redefine the office in a way that is more inclusive of all Virginians.

More importantly, Virginia Republicans must remember this: You do not have a large mandate by which to run wild with far-right governance. To read it that way is a big mistake. Virginia is a deeply purple state. It is no longer red. It is no longer blue. Gov. Youngkin won his race with 50.2% of the vote (versus 48.6 percent for Democrat Terry McAullife). The House of Delegates has a four-seat margin for Republicans and a two-vote margin for Democrats in the Senate, giving new Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears a critical tie-breaking vote on close legislative priorities. And new Attorney General Jason Miyares, the first Latino elected to statewide office, will be the enforcement officer of some of the governor’s executive orders and directives, but again there is no political mandate. 

This kind of close statewide election requires leaders to lead and build consensus from the center—to work together as bipartisan cohorts to advance Virginia’s most critical priorities. In the final analysis, Gov. Youngkin, Del. Williams and Republicans had better take heed to some historical truths and facts. Racial injustice is not a relic of the past. It is not something we can gloss over that no longer exists. Just ask Black Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, who was brutalized by Virginia police in Windsor last year and caught on video. Just ask Black parents how they feel that the teaching of accurate Black history in the classroom now offends white parents and students but neglects their children’s desire to see themselves and their ancestors accurately represented in historical texts and teachings. 

Youngkin is governor of all Virginians, as he said boldly on Saturday. I pray that he truly understands that truth. He has a responsibility to all of us, not just some of us. He has a duty to protect the liberties and freedoms of all Virginians, not just his mostly white rural Trump base. I believe Youngkin has an opportunity to grow the Republican Party of Virginia if he can lead as a compassionate conservative who is willing to listen, learn and grow. But if this is how we are starting this new administration—with a spate of bills and executive orders that specifically target racial issues, racial education and racial justice through the lens of conservative white men—I am afraid we still have a long, long way to go.

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio. Nelson is a TV commentator and is the author of “The Woman Code: Powerful Keys to Unlock,” “Black Women Redefined.”

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