The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. Gov. Youngkin stirred the GOP base on critical race theory — but not the General Assembly

Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) at the Capitol in Richmond on Feb. 18. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)

RICHMOND — Six weeks after Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) made banning the teaching of critical race theory and “divisive concepts” the first executive order of his administration, the issue is all but dead in the General Assembly with even GOP lawmakers pulling back on the topic.

Unlike the big bipartisan legislative win Youngkin scored on making masks optional in schools — the subject of his second executive order — the race-related issue met universal condemnation from Democrats, who control the state Senate and quickly killed any related bills on that side of the Capitol.

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The Republican-controlled House passed one bill that prohibits the teaching of certain race-related concepts, but only after dropping the word “divisive” from its language. Another bill and a proposed budget amendment that both closely reflected Youngkin’s executive order never made it out of House committees as GOP leaders chose to concentrate efforts on the single bill.

Youngkin, however, continues to hammer the issue, releasing a report this past week that catalogues elements of state education training or policy that his administration views as “divisive” and influenced by critical race theory, an academic framework for studying the history of systemic racism.

A Christopher Newport University poll this past week suggested that Youngkin’s position is out of step with a majority of Virginia voters, about two-thirds of whom said in the survey that they oppose a ban on teaching critical race theory and favor teaching the ugly realities of racial history.

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A spokeswoman for Youngkin did not comment on whether the administration had decided to soften the push for legislation, but suggested that there are other ways to achieve the same ends.

“The governor looks forward to [continuing] to work with the legislature on restoring academic excellence and removing divisive concepts, but he has already taken clear steps to deliver on his pledged promises,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in a written statement.

In addition to his executive order, Youngkin might soon have another tool in hand: appointing a new slate to the state Board of Education, which has authority to set policy for schools statewide.

As payback for Senate Democrats’ rejecting one of Youngkin’s Cabinet picks, House Republicans recently voted against confirming 11 of Democratic former governor Ralph Northam’s appointments to several state panels, including three on the Board of Education. That gives Youngkin a chance to fill those slots with his own appointees, putting him on track to take control of the board a year ahead of schedule.

Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), leader of the Black caucus, said the political challenge of getting anti-critical race theory measures through the legislature might have been a surprise to the governor, who regularly inspired big cheers from GOP supporters for railing against the topic on the campaign trail last year.

“I think it’s going to take time for him to figure out how to connect with voters across the commonwealth, because your campaign team will tell you one thing but then when you get out into the community and really talk to everyday folk, you oftentimes hear something different,” Bagby said. “It’s my hope … that he will go out and talk to folks to really see what the vision of the commonwealth is above and beyond political strategy.”

That’s roughly what Republicans did with House Bill 787 sponsored by Del. David A LaRock (R-Loudoun), the one vehicle for banning the teaching of certain race-related topics that still survives — though probably not for long.

Initially, LaRock’s bill made it unlawful for a local school board or employee “to train or instruct any individual on any divisive concept.” That version passed out of a House committee on a party-line vote, all Republicans for and Democrats against.

On the floor of the House, though, Republicans amended the bill to take out the word “divisive" in favor of defining a host of practices it would outlaw, such as teaching that one race or sex is inherently superior, racist or discriminated against.

LaRock said he had watched as Democrats in the Senate criticized and defeated a bill there that contained language almost identical to Youngkin’s executive order.

“Ideas change through this legislative process,” LaRock said. “From the discussion there I saw weaknesses in my own bill, using terms that can be interpreted differently by different people. That would be ‘divisive concepts,’ that would be ‘critical race theory.’ I can’t speak for the governor, but I think we’ve moved closer to understanding where we can have a meeting of the minds” with Democrats.

LaRock’s bill cleared the full House on a party-line vote. It moved on to a Senate education subcommittee on Thursday, where it stirred emotional debate.

Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico) said she has heard from parents whose boys came home from school feeling upset about being White, and said the bill is about setting a “level playing field” where everyone is equal.

“This bill is about preventing shame, that’s what we’re really talking about here,” Dunnavant said during the debate. “There’s nothing about divisive content or anything else or even critical race theory. This is [about] not making somebody feel bad about themselves based on any variable.”

Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton), who is Black, said she was exasperated with Dunnavant’s argument. “It’s quite easy to speak from one’s White privilege about this piece of legislation,” Locke said.

“That shames me,” Dunnavant responded.

“Well I’m glad that it does," Locke replied, "because someone like me who has had to deal with being told one’s entire life that I was inherently inferior because of my race, because of my gender, because of the way I looked — and now all of a sudden we care about those things and we don’t want to talk about it any more.”

The subcommittee’s Democratic majority recommended killing the bill; it will move next week to the full committee, which is likely to follow that recommendation.

Still, LaRock said he was pleased that the measure had gotten what he considered a thoughtful and impassioned discussion.

“I want to see us move forward toward being unified, all races, treating sexes as equals, as we are,” he said. “Passing this bill, whenever it happens … will prevent us from moving backwards.”

Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), who carried the Senate bill that mirrored the governor’s executive order, said she was hopeful that legislators could find a compromise on the issue down the road.

“That issue mattered to parents and that’s why I brought the bill,” she said. “So I think it’s something worth continuing to find [consensus on]. You know, if it didn’t pass this year, then how can we tweak it so it’s more acceptable to both sides the aisle? It’s obviously an issue important to voters.”

Striking the words “inherently divisive concepts” from LaRock’s bill made little difference to Democrat Ghazala F. Hashmi (D-Chesterfield), a member of the Senate Education and Health Committee and a longtime community college educator.

“Essentially, it was the same bill,” she said. “It says that we should not elevate one race over another in our school conversations … The only group that I know that teaches about racial superiority are white supremacists … That’s simply not happening in our public education system.”

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Hashmi said she thinks the legislation has had a chilling effect on teachers, particularly in combination with the tip line Youngkin established for parents to report on teachers who present “divisive” subjects. “There’s no clarification as to what issues are of concern,” she said. “So are we talking about the teaching of American history? Are we talking about the teaching of the civil rights movement? Of slavery? Jim Crow? Lynching?”

Hashmi said Youngkin invited her to a one-on-one meeting about two weeks after his swearing-in, during which she urged him to shift to less polarizing and more substantive educational issues. “I’ve asked the governor directly to stop these culture wars, to stop this distraction,” she said, adding that she told him the priority should be literacy, math skills and other basic tenets of education.

Hashmi said that the meeting was cordial, but that Youngkin made no promises about changing course. “He said he will take it into consideration,” she said.

Asked about Hashmi’s account, Porter, Youngkin’s spokeswoman, said in an email that the governor would “rather not disclose details of private conversations.”