In Virginia’s Culture Wars, One Battle Has Already Been Lost
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On Tuesday, Virginians will vote to choose their next governor. The Democratic candidate is Terry McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014 to 2018 but was term-limited out of office. The Republican candidate is Glenn Youngkin, a private equity executive and newcomer to electoral politics.
There are real, material issues at hand in Virginia, where I grew up and where I currently live, from transportation and housing costs to climate, economic inequality and, of course, the commonwealth’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The battleground for this election, however, is culture, identity and the specter of the previous president.
McAuliffe and his supporters want Virginians to feel that a vote for Youngkin is a vote for Donald Trump. “I ran against Donald Trump and Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump,” said President Biden while speaking at a rally Tuesday night in Arlington. “We have a choice,” said McAuliffe at the same event. “A path that promotes conspiracies, hate, division, or a path focused on lifting up every single Virginian.”
Youngkin, for his part, wants Virginians to know that a vote for McAuliffe is a vote for “critical race theory.” Not the legal discipline that deals with the distance between formal and actual equality, but the idea, spread by right-wing activists and their wealthy supporters, that public schools are teaching a racist ideology of guilt and anti-white sentiment. Youngkin’s singular message has been that he will keep this “critical race theory” out of Virginia’s schools.
What this means, if the rhetoric of Youngkin’s strongest supporters is any indication, is an assault on any discussion of race and racism in the state’s classrooms. In an interview with the journalist Alex Wagner, a leading Republican activist in Virginia said exactly this, asserting that it should be “up to the parents” to teach students about racism and condemning a school assignment in which a sixth grade student blamed President Andrew Jackson for violence against Native Americans.
Try to imagine what this would look like.
Virginia is where African slavery first took root in Britain’s Atlantic empire. It is where, following that development, English settlers developed an ideology of racism to justify their decision to, as the historian Winthrop Jordan put it, “debase the Negro.” It is where, in the middle of the 18th century, a powerful class of planter-intellectuals developed a vision of liberty and freedom tied inextricably to their lives as slave owners, and it is where, a century later, their descendants would fight to build a slave empire in their name.
And all of this is before we get to Reconstruction and Jim Crow and massive resistance to school integration and the many other forces that have shaped Virginia into the present. Just this week came news of the death of A. Linwood Holton, elected in 1969 as the state’s first Republican governor of the 20th century. Holton integrated Virginia schools and broke the back of the segregationist Byrd machine (named for the domineering Harry F. Byrd), which controlled the state from the 1890s into the 1960s.
To take discussions of race and racism out of the classroom would, in practice, make it impossible to teach Virginia state history beyond dates, bullet points and the vaguest of generalities.
One of the closing advertisements from the Youngkin campaign features a woman who took umbrage over Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” after her son, a high-school senior, said that the book gave him nightmares when he read it as part of an A.P. English class. (I do not doubt that this is true, but I also think that if Black students have to encounter racism — and speaking from experience, they do — then white students should at least have to learn about it.)
Democracy requires empathy. We have to be able to see ourselves in one another to be able to see one another as political equals. I think history education is one important way to build that empathy. To understand the experiences of a person in a fundamentally different time and place is to practice the skills you need to see your fellow citizens as equal people even when their lives are profoundly different and distant from your own. This is why it’s vital that students learn as much as possible about the many varieties of people who have lived, and died, on this land.
This democratic empathy is, I believe, a powerful force. It can, for example, lead white children in isolated rural Virginia to march and demonstrate in memory of a poor Black man who died at the hands of police in urban Minnesota.
I do not know who will win the Virginia election. It looks, at this point, like a tossup. But I do know that, viewed in the light of empathy and its consequences, the panic against critical race theory looks like a rear-guard action in a battle already lost: a vain attempt to reverse the march of a force that has already done much to undermine hierarchy and the “proper” order of things"