The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin stokes Virginia’s divisions with racially obtuse appointees

Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks at an event in Lansing, Mich., on Aug. 27. (Nic Antaya/Bloomberg News)

As he has filled appointed positions in Virginia’s government, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who took office this year with one eye on a possible bid for the White House, has chosen a mixed slate of movement conservatives and moderate pragmatists. A common denominator among his most controversial picks are racial views that are retrograde and ignorant.

This summer alone, one of the governor’s appointees, historian Ann Hunter McLean, resigned from the state’s Board of Historic Resources after public scrutiny of her delusional argument that slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War — a view debunked by James McPherson, dean of Civil War scholars, among many other prominent historians.

Another of Mr. Youngkin’s choices, state Health Commissioner Colin Greene, was forced to express contrition after an uproar sparked by his repeated comments denying structural racism’s well-documented role in health disparities.

Most recently, the student council at the University of Virginia called for the resignation of Bert Ellis, a Youngkin appointee on U-Va.’s Board of Visitors who had attacked the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives — even traveling there with a razor blade to cut down a sign on a student’s door that he regarded as offensive. That was before a report by the U-Va. student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, that Mr. Ellis, as an undergraduate in the 1970s, fought to bring a noted eugenicist to campus to air his pseudoscientific views that Black people are genetically inferior to Whites.

It is undoubtedly possible to identify qualified conservatives for politically appointed boards and commissions whose beliefs are not tainted with the whiff of racism. And in fact, Mr. Youngkin has done so; a number of his choices for the state’s nine-member Board of Education, for example, are solid experts with a variety of rich backgrounds.

For whatever reason, however, Mr. Youngkin has seemed blind to the pitfalls of racially obtuse appointees, and they have become a problem for him. Amid controversy he easily could have avoided, the governor was forced to cut loose Ms. McLean; publicly scold Dr. Greene; and, so far, duck pointed questions about Mr. Ellis.

Mr. Youngkin is not Virginia’s first governor in recent memory to get tangled up in a racially clueless donnybrook of his own making. In 2010, Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell triggered a storm with a proclamation for Confederate History Month that omitted any mention of slavery while directing “all Virginians” to hail their “shared” history and the Confederacy’s sacrifices. He later apologized for a statement that managed to airbrush the 500,000 enslaved people who constituted more than a quarter of the state’s pre-Civil War population, who cheered the Union and ran away to it when they could. More recently in 2019, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam first acknowledged, then denied, that he had posed in blackface for a photograph in his medical school yearbook entry.

On taking office in January, Mr. Youngkin issued an executive order banning the teaching of “divisive” material in the state’s public schools. Yet by some of his own appointments, the governor himself has stoked Virginia’s divisions.

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