The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s in a word? Youngkin takes aim at ‘equity’

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin works at the state Capitol on Wednesday. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — It was hard to miss the thread running through the race-related policies Gov. Glenn Youngkin purged from the Virginia education system last week for being “divisive”: Almost all featured some version of the word “equity.”

“Resource equity” — gone. “Responsibility to advance racial, social and economic equity” — gone. “Virginia’s Equity Audit Tool” — gone. The effort echoed Youngkin’s push to rename the state’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as the Office of Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion, which the General Assembly rejected but which the administration has enacted on the state website anyway.

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Youngkin’s war on the e-word might seem esoteric, but it represents one of the sharpest turnabouts in state policy since the Republican took office in January. Equity has been at the heart of a racial reckoning in Virginia government that began with former governor Ralph Northam’s blackface yearbook scandal in 2019 and accelerated with the racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020.

Northam was able to hold on to his job and rebuild support around the state partly by pledging to fight racial inequity, and he overhauled policies to seek equity in everything from hiring to education and maternal mortality rates.

Youngkin tapped a completely different political vein in his successful bid for office last year, appealing to parents fed up with school shutdowns related to the coronavirus and stirring the White GOP base with promises to ban “critical race theory” in the classroom.

His success in what had seemed to be a blue state marked a path for other Republicans nationally and vaulted Youngkin’s name onto lists of potential presidential contenders. But his drive to eliminate the word equity — which was not a topic of the election campaign — has inflamed racial tension in the state legislature even as the governor calls for unity and seeks to connect with Black lawmakers.

“I need to ask Governor Youngkin, what is so offensive about that word?” Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond), a senior member of the Black Caucus, said in an interview. “People who … feel that there have been inequities that have occurred as a result of who they are and the color of their skin … we still know what it is.”

Youngkin certainly knows one sense of the word, having amassed a fortune as the head of private equity giant the Carlyle Group. But just as equity in the business world means having a financial stake in something, Republicans say equity in the policy world suggests reward. They instead use the word equality, which from this point of view means everyone has an opportunity and success is up to the individual.

“Equity seems to be equity of outcomes,” said Del. A.C. Cordoza (R-Hampton), the only Black Republican in the House of Delegates. “It can be seen as erasing someone’s hard work for someone who has not done the same thing.”

That position mirrors the flap that greeted President Biden last year when his first executive orders called for racial equity across the federal government and the nation, prompting conservatives to complain that he was abandoning the concept of equality.

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“Equity has lost its traditional definition in the field of education,” Virginia education secretary Aimee Guidera said in a written statement after The Washington Post asked Youngkin’s office to talk about the issue. “Formerly, equity referred to the practice of providing equal access and opportunities to every learner. Increasingly, equity means that everyone achieves the same outcome.”

Republican opposition to the concept has fueled efforts in this year’s General Assembly to eliminate race-based admissions policies at elite governor’s schools and to outlaw the teaching of critical race theory, an academic framework for studying the history of systemic racism. A bill that sets standards for governor’s school admissions policies remains alive; the critical-race-theory measures were killed by Democrats who control the state Senate, but Youngkin has signaled he will pursue the matter through executive action.

Many Black lawmakers view his emphasis on both critical race theory and equity as a nod to national political audiences, especially conservatives who have pushed back against issues of historical racism raised by the social justice protests of 2020.

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“I honestly see this as his effort to totally whitewash history,” said Del. Jeion Ward (D-Hampton), another senior Black Caucus member. “If he could erase it all so we never have to study it, and it never happened, we’re just going to cover it all up. So all the inequities are gone, all the racism is gone, all the discrimination is gone because we have just whitewashed it and now — bam! — it never existed.”

To Ward and others, the idea of equity is central to the goal of achieving true equality because it involves confronting the lingering impact of past injustices.

“Equity is the acknowledgment that we all don’t have the same opportunities available to us because we, in this country, have systemic racism and discrimination that creates barriers for different groups of people,” said Jatia Wrighten, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies race and state legislatures.

RISE, a national nonprofit that advocates for social justice in athletics, explains the difference between equality and equity with a cartoon that sometimes circulates on social media: Three children — tall, medium and short — are trying to watch a baseball game over a fence. Equality means each child gets the same size box to stand on, but that doesn’t help the shortest child see over the fence. Equity means the shortest child gets a bigger box, so they all can see.

Guidera, the education secretary, said last week’s interim report on education policies found that equity “was used to prioritize activities, discussions and policies around why students weren’t achieving based on their race rather than focusing on the essential work of ensuring every learner is on track for success.”

Based on the report, state superintendent Jillian Balow rescinded eight broad areas of guidance for teachers and principals, including the entire EdEquityVA website. Balow cited the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a basis for deeming the policies “discriminatory.”

Virginia's Education Department rescinds diversity, equity programs in response to Youngkin's order

Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax) decried the “convoluted logic” of that stance in a House floor speech last week. “A law that was passed to eliminate discrimination is being used to justify discrimination,” he said.

The report’s attack on equity, he said, “seems to suggest that the obligation of government is to offer conditions without a responsibility to see that all students can achieve under them.”

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), who is Black, said the report ignores the impact of a long list of state policies that targeted people of color. Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 required all people to be categorized as “white” or “colored” to power a system of strict segregation. Redlining kept African Americans from living in the best neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods were destroyed by urban renewal and highway projects. Schools were closed for years at a time rather than integrated, with White children going to private academies.

“Over 300 years of impact of Jim Crow did not go away like a magic wand when the laws were changed,” McClellan said. “And we have to meet our students where they are. We cannot assume they all start from the same starting block because they don’t. We cannot assume that they all have a straight path from when they show up in kindergarten to when they graduate because they don’t.”

Some Republicans say they agree with that concept, even as they argue against the idea of equity-based policies.

“If you’re identifying someone that has started off with disadvantages that are, like, no fault of their own, I think all of us agree that we want to be able to, you know, facilitate ways that that person can have access to things that they might not have access to within their current circumstances,” said Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper), who carried the bill to remove equity from the name of the state’s diversity office.

But the solution, Freitas said, should not be about measuring outcomes. It should be more about measuring did somebody that wanted an opportunity, who was working hard toward that opportunity, were they able to go after it?” he said.

Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (R-Virginia Beach), who sponsored a bill to remove race as a consideration in admissions to governor’s schools, said simply ensuring that various groups have equitable access to an elite institution isn’t the answer.

“Creating equity and diversity in a governor’s school doesn’t create opportunity for success,” Davis said, if students who come from a disadvantaged background aren’t prepared for the rigorous curriculum. “Without equal access to opportunity, you won’t have ultimate success,” he said.

The crusade against equity strikes Del. Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) as especially confounding because Youngkin took such a different tone when he led the Carlyle Group. Youngkin and co-CEO Kewsong Lee hired a chief diversity officer and put out a strongly worded statement condemning “racism and injustices” in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by Minnesota police in 2020.

Youngkin and Lee promised special matching donations to organizations working for “social justice,” identifying the Equal Justice Initiative, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Youngkin left Carlyle in 2020, but its current diversity policy states that it is aimed at “the ongoing development of a work environment built on the premise of gender and diversity equity.”

“Now, because of politics, he’s made that word one of his words to take out,” Scott said. “He’s abandoning equity. And I think that’s really, really sad. He’s gone so far to the right on that issue — and he’s a smart guy, so he knows what he’s doing, because he knows all about equity in the corporate world.”

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