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Opinion Youngkin is using the critical race theory bogeyman to rile up the Trumpian base

Republican nominee for Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin gives a speech on the opposition to critical race theory in Loudoun County schools on June 30 in Ashburn. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
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On the stump and in interviews, Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, Glenn Youngkin, insists that instruction in critical race theory has permeated Virginia public schools — an insidious development he plans to “ban” on his first day in office. In fact, critical race theory is not part of local school systems’ K-12 curriculum, nor mentioned in the state’s Standards of Learning, the baseline knowledge students must master. There’s scant evidence it’s taught anywhere — let alone everywhere, as he would have Virginians believe.

There’s little mystery about what impels Mr. Youngkin’s false statements, which dovetail with national Republicans’ strategy of using the critical race theory bogeyman to foment racial resentments among the GOP’s heavily White voting base. In his race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Mr. Youngkin is testing the electoral efficacy of what was until recently an obscure term. Whether it works is an open question; what’s not in doubt is its divisiveness at a time when divisions already run deep.

PolitiFact carefully reviewed what Mr. Youngkin’s campaign presented as evidence that critical race theory has moved into “all” of Virginia’s schools, and rated his assertions as false. The items cited by the campaign included a handful of references from a grab bag of sources, not all of them Virginians. Those sources variously cited the need to “build anti-racist school communities” (a statement by incumbent Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam); books or articles explaining or advocating critical race theory (one mentioned by a high school principal in Chesterfield County); and a reading list from the state Education Department’s Office of Equity and Community Engagement, which includes a single volume, by three scholars, about critical race theory.

As PolitiFact noted, that same book, “Foundations of Critical Race Theory in Education,” was also recommended to local school superintendents by a state education official in 2019, among a list of resources to promote schools that are “welcoming, socially supportive, just, caring, nurturing, and respectful for all students, families, and school personnel.”

Not exactly revolutionary stuff.

Virginia’s Education Department was unequivocal. Mr. Youngkin’s conflating of the state’s efforts to advance racial equity with instruction in critical race theory “is inaccurate and unfair,” a spokesman said. And a growing list of local school systems, including some big ones, have said they don’t teach it.

Critical race theory is wielded by GOP politicians as a bellows with which to fan racial panic. Its core focus on enduring remnants of racism in American law, institutions and systems is anathema to many Republicans for whom any such discussion is received as a moral rebuke to the country writ large, or racist itself. It would be nice to think Republicans such as Mr. Youngkin, without embracing any theory, would support schools where students debate the good and the bad in American history; instead, sloganeering has won the day.

By condemning critical race theory, Mr. Youngkin has seized on a handy tool by which to avoid any sober discussion of race or racism, while riling up a segment of the electorate whose enthusiasm is key to his electoral prospects. Even as former president Donald Trump himself warns Mr. Youngkin against a lukewarm embrace of his MAGA movement, Mr. Youngkin evidently hopes that his critical race theory dog-whistles will be enough to get out the GOP vote.