4 min read
Being Critical of Critical Race Theory: What the Republican Victory in Virginia Means

Ilan Hulkower

The November 2021 election in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a state that went for Joe Biden by 10 percentage points over Trump in 2020, resulted in a full Republican sweep of the state’s executive posts and the legislature of the House of Delegates. Glenn Youngkin’s 1.9 percentage point edge over his Democratic rival Terry McAuliffe, who was running for a second (and nonconsecutive) term, in the vote tally makes him the first Republican to win the governorship of Virginia since 2009. Youngkin’s victory was the result of all counties in the state swinging to the right and in particular a rightward shift in the suburban vote. A key issue that resonated with many who voted for Youngkin, who ran on banning Critical Race Theory (CRT) from public education, was antipathy toward CRT and its place in the state’s education system. Indeed, a survey of Virginia voters found that 72 percent of all voters found this issue of importance, with 25 percent of voters seeing this issue as the most important in determining who they would vote for. 

CRT is an academic theory and practice, which first came out of legal studies, that posits that race is a social construct, that whites are bearers of systemic racism out of a need to subordinate non-whites, and that minorities have a unique competence in their ability to talk about race. The way that racism by CRT is defined is by no means clear. Ibram Kendi, an advocate of critical race theory, defines racism as actively or inactively supporting racist policies that produce racial inequalities. In effect what this circular definition breaks down to is that if a policy has unequal effects on a category of the general population, then it must be racist. This stands in contrast to a more traditional definition of racism which is a person who sees race as the fundamental determinate of humanity with an emphasis on the inherent superiority of one race over another. 

The general charge that Republicans and other critics of CRT have against this theory is that its practitioners seek to instill and inflame a worldview of race-based consciousness that divides the populace into tribal camps rather than a colorblind and meritocratic worldview which is more unifying and just. These critics also argue that people infused with this worldview of systemic racism fail to educate people for the real world and that this problematic worldview, which is even taught in public schools to kids from K-12th grade, should be banned in public schools. For instance, California’s Department of Education proposed to eliminate opportunities in the name of equity for gifted students to place them in math classes that fit their knowledge given that such programs reinforces racial inequality [for the exact document detailing this, see Chapter 1: Introduction] . Additionally, CRT is an unpopular agenda with the American public that does not hold majority support even among the demographics it purports to aid. Richard Baris, a noted pollster, found a majority among all demographic groups (Asian, Hispanic, White, and Black) opposed the CRT worldview of systemic racism and opposed it being taught to children. Rasmussen, a polling firm, found that 78 percent of voters wanted schools to focus on teaching traditional Western values, which are values that CRT is at odds with. 

Faced with this backlash over Critical Race Theory in Virginia, Terry McAuliffe decided to deny that it was being taught in the state and accused those raising the issue as engaging in a racist dog whistle. Indeed, some media outlets outright denied is not being taught in K-12 schools, but that didn't stop Virginia Governor-Elect Glenn Youngkin from vowing to ban it") that CRT was taught in a K-12 setting. Some went further and just declared that it was just a legal theory that was not taught in a K-12 setting but that it should be. Such refrains by the Democratic nominee for governor and others continued even as it emerged that it was under his administration in 2015 that CRT was introduced to Virginia’s public schools. Other stories have come out since about how CRT is being taught in K-12 schools. As for it just being a legal theory restricted to a law school setting, even Richard Delgado, the co-founder of Critical Race Theory, noted that the theory had taken root in other disciplines and in general education. 

This crusade for public education being rid of CRT has paid its dividends for the Republican party. That this issue reconnected the Grand Old Party with suburban voters in the Virginia election shows the political salience of culture war issues and makes a strong case for this tactic being used in other elections as well. The reaction by some in the press to the suburban voter, who once praised suburban voters as being the saviors of democracy against Trump and for standing up against his alleged racism, being swayed by Youngkin’s appeals was to label them as dupes for white supremacy. The fact that these same voters elected Winsome Sears, a black Republican, to the post of Lieutenant Governor or their election of Jason Miyares, a Hispanic Republican, to be the next attorney general and that the Republicans have continued to make inroads among non-white voters seems to have escaped such critics. The reaction to the election in Virginia (and the closer than expected gubernatorial election in New Jersey) by some Democratic consultants like James Carville is to acknowledge that wokeness (of which CRT is a part of) causes a great disconnect between voters and the Democratic party. It appears, however, that there are plans for Democrats to double down on defending Critical Race Theory in future elections. Such a position is likely to lead to disaster for the Democrats given the aforementioned unpopularity of the theory. At any rate, the Republicans have found a powerful issue to take to local, state, and national elections that motivates their base and garners support from outside their traditional venues of support.

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