Glenn Youngkin's Culture Wars
Keith Warther for Courier Newsroom

In order to motivate the conservative base, Republican Glenn Youngkin has increasingly embraced manufactured controversies and taken positions that risk inflaming tensions rather than addressing the many crises facing Virginians and their children. 

This is the final part of a three-part series examining Republican Glenn Youngkin’s education agenda. You can find part one here and part two here.

In many ways, Glenn Youngkin appears to be the sort of classic, old-school Republican candidate of old. A multi-millionaire former private equity executive, Youngkin has positioned himself as a business-friendly “political outsider” who wants to cut taxes.

Even though elements of the conservative base have pushed him to support more extreme positions, Youngkin, who’s running to be Virginia’s next governor, has tried to tone down at least some of his stances to win back suburban and independent voters who fled the GOP in droves during the Trump era. During his campaign, he’s tiptoed around questions about his positions on abortion and the outcome of the 2020 election

But to run a competitive race, he also needs to ensure that the Trump-loving Republican base turns out in November. This reality has forced Youngkin to thread a difficult needle of trying to appeal to moderates while also exciting the Trumpy conservative base. As such, he has increasingly embraced manufactured controversies and taken positions that risk inflaming tensions rather than addressing the many crises facing Virginians. 

Youngkin Jumps Into Critical Race Theory Fight to ‘Throw Red Meat At His Base’ 

Over the course of the summer, it was almost impossible to avoid hearing about “critical race theory” (CRT) in Virginia. Thanks to a symbiotic effort from far-right activists, media figures, and lawmakers, some Virginia parents accepted the lie that K-12 history classes are teaching non-Black children that they are racist. 

Following the lead of these far-right figures, Youngkin has championed the right-wing bogeyman of CRT and proposed a ban on teaching it—even though it’s not part of Virginia’s K-12 curriculum and is largely confined to law schools.

CRT is an academic legal framework for studying the impact of systemic racism in the United States at the graduate school level. The legal segregation of Black Americans into undesirable neighborhoods during the 20th century is an example of something that would be studied under CRT.

When asked about the candidate’s stance, a Youngkin campaign spokesperson said that the Republican would appoint a Board of Education and a State Superintendent who would end the use of CRT in professional development programs.

In a debate held earlier this month, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe said Youngkin is using CRT as a “dog whistle” that only “divides people” against each other.

Other Democrats also believe it’s much ado about nothing and just the latest example of Republicans creating a controversy out of thin air in order to stoke outrage for electoral gain.

“When you can’t win on substance, you try to win on slogans, and I think that’s what they’re doing. They don’t even know what critical race theory is,” said state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond). “I think what Youngkin is trying to do is throw red meat at his base and try to sow division and confusion because he can’t win on the substance of the issues that voters care about.”

That political red meat, however, has real-life consequences for Virginia teachers and students. Bob Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development, said the controversy has delivered yet another blow to the public school system.

“What public schools are working very, very hard to be able to do is to teach history accurately and teach history fully,” said Pianta. 

To further ensure that Virginia teachers are teaching the full scope of American history and better understand differences between cultural and racial groups, Virginia Democrats passed a law earlier this year that requires teachers complete cultural competency training to obtain or renew their teaching license in the state. The law also requires the Virginia Board of Education to include cultural competency in teacher, principal, and superintendent evaluations.

While that law is intended to make schools more equitable, it has drawn backlash from those who also oppose CRT, including Youngkin. In June, he falsely stated that cultural competency training is just code for CRT. 

Pianta said that the widespread misunderstanding of this legal theory has been disappointing to observe.

“The way that [teaching history] has been wrapped up in critical race theory and then that [has been] used as a kind of hammer on the public school system as a system of indoctrination or whatever the case may be that the critics and misinterpreters of this are using—it’s just really unfortunate,” he said.

If Youngkin wins and signs into law such a ban—as Republican-led states like Texas have already done—it might lack any real force of law. It could, however, lead schools to censor what they teach about American history and racism. That would only harm Virginia’s students, according to James J. Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, a union of more than 40,000 teachers and support professionals.

“It concerns me that there’s conversations about not wanting to teach this or not wanting to teach that or not teaching the other,” Fedderman said. “Teach the truth. Our students deserve to know the truth regardless of whatever it is.”

Rupa Murthy, whose three children attend Richmond-area public schools, is worried that watering down history or leaving things out would hinder future generations and prevent them from moving forward. 

“I hope we can get past this weird controversy and actually talk about things that matter and let our teachers teach the real history of the world,” she said.

While the anti-CRT strategy has proven to be catnip to the Trump base, it’s unclear whether it will help Youngkin with the moderates and independent voters that he needs to win in Virginia.

Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Chesterfield County) is not convinced it will. 

“The simple fact is that especially when it comes to CRT, that it’s not part of the Virginia School Division curriculum anywhere. And when voters hear that—the whole attempt to make that into a scare tactic—it doesn’t resonate with them,” she said. “I think that they are throwing issues or phrases at the wall to see what will stick and to see where they can gain traction and so far, I just don’t think it’s been as successful as they would like for it to be, and I do not believe it will be the determining factor in this year’s election.”

Youngkin Supports Fringe Position on Masks in Schools

Critical race theory isn’t Youngkin’s only foray into the culture war. He has also chosen to side with the vocal and angry conservative minority in opposing the widely popular position of requiring masks in schools. 

The Republican has said he would reverse Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s policy of requiring students, teachers, and staff at K-12 schools to wear masks indoors to protect unvaccinated children from contracting COVID-19, even as child case and hospitalization rates have soared in Virginia.

Studies have repeatedly shown that masks offer significant protection against the spread of the virus, but opposing mask requirements has become something of a de facto stance for any Republican seeking the approval of the Trump base. And so Youngkin has embraced that position, even as a recent poll from Monmouth University found that 67% of registered Virginia voters—and 64% of Virginia parents—back Northam’s mask requirement.

McAuliffe—who has called on schools, hospitals, and employers to require vaccines for their workers—has not been shy about criticizing Youngkin. As new COVID cases have surged in recent weeks, the Democrat’s campaign has doubled down on focusing on the issue.

“Glenn Youngkin continues to peddle anti-vaccine rhetoric, and opposes vaccine requirements for schools, businesses and hospital workers,” McAuliffe campaign spokesperson Renzo Olivari said in a statement. “Simply put: when it comes to this pandemic, we are facing a leadership test—and Glenn has already failed.”

Youngkin’s opposition to mask requirements has also frustrated Murthy, who believes face coverings should continue to be required in public schools.

“As a mom of an [unvaccinated] 8-year-old, I’m asking our older kids to wear a mask in school, while playing sports, at the gym and when they visit with friends indoors,” she said. “Even if we are one of the lucky families who don’t get critically ill or die if we get COVID, we still have to miss school for two weeks and quarantine. We can’t afford that financially, socially, emotionally, and most importantly, for my young child’s ability to keep up at school.”

Fedderman also criticized Youngkin’s stance and said Virginia’s school system should continue to follow CDC guidance. “Wearing a mask is a simple price to pay to ensure that those around you and yourself—that you’re safe on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “It saddens me that wearing a mask has become a political issue versus what is right and what is wrong.”

He also expressed frustration at the continued use of children as political pawns, saying: “When adults play political games, our children suffer.”