The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngkin’s first act as Virginia governor — while quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — is ominous

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks at an inaugural celebration on Saturday. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
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Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) gave his voters what they asked for as his first act in office, invoking the moral authority of Martin Luther King Jr. — on the actual birthday of the civil rights icon — to justify an attack on anti-racist teaching.

He used King’s own words in an executive order forbidding “inherently divisive concepts” in education, rendering Virginia the seventh state to ban outright the teaching of “critical race theory,” a graduate-level framework for understanding how policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism, something that is not taught in K-12 settings.

Pushed into the mainstream by conservative activists looking to stoke the very fears and division Youngkin decries, “CRT” is a boogeyman that drove parents to school board meetings and to the polls in the closely-watched contest for governor in November.

Black parents on the critical race theory debate across the country

“We must equip our teachers to teach our students the entirety of our history — both good and bad … Only then will we realize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that our children ‘will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,’ ” the executive order states.

Read that again. Youngkin set the tone for his administration by prohibiting learning about the consequences of racism in the state where the first enslaved Africans arrived to what would become America.

More than 400 years later, Youngkin would rob their descendants of a history that is not just theirs but all of ours. This, the executive order claims, will coincide with “teaching our children the value of freedom of thought and diversity of ideas.”

The purpose of education, King wrote as an 18-year-old Morehouse College student in 1947, is to “save a man from the morass of propaganda.”

“Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction,” he wrote in the school paper.

Sounds like it could’ve been written today, to a nation struggling with conspiracy theories, with lying leaders, with continued attacks on education.

On what should’ve been his 93rd birthday on Saturday, King’s memory was hijacked and defiled by a multimillionaire who rocketed to public office, powered by the very things King warned us about: falsehoods and propaganda.

“I don’t think that White kids should be taught they should be made to feel guilty,” was the response a Fox News-watching relative of mine told me when I asked her what she knows about critical race theory, which she denounces heartily.

This isn’t about guilt or shame. Though it’s perfectly natural, and morally on point, to feel horror when learning about our nation’s difficult history.

Remember the Virginia mom who tried to ban Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Beloved,” because it gave her high school senior nightmares? The true story about slavery certainly should give us nightmares. It was morally abhorrent and learning the full truth about it will make Americans better citizens and better advocates for a more just and equitable society.

Critical race theory is facts, evidence and information to be digested and analyzed by students, primarily the ones in law school. It is education. But for Youngkin and others who use it to scare uninformed White voters, it was political rocket fuel.

“We will eventually turn it toxic,” Christopher Rufo, the man who helped weaponize the concept, wrote on Twitter last March. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’”

Republicans view political promise in targeting critical race theory

President Donald Trump saw Rufo, a conservative activist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, on Fox News pushing his marketing strategy last year, seized on it, and pushed it.

If a governor’s opening actions communicate ruling ethos, there is more division to come. Buckle your seat belts, Virginia. This first executive order — a valentine to fragile Whites — is ominous.

Too bad Youngkin didn’t read more from King, whose legacy is too often pacified.

“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance,” King wrote in his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” “It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

If your solution to division is “not seeing color,” it’s not a solution. Only through education that allows us to sift and weigh evidence, and to separate truth from falsehoods, will we be able to unite.