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People hold up signs during a rally against "Critical Race Theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

People hold up signs during a rally against "Critical Race Theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Virginia's Long History of Racism Reared Its Ugly Head in the Youngkin Victory

Youngkin's hammering away on CRT was a not very subtle dog whistle to inflame the right-wing base which voted for him in record margins, and it also served to make some white voters comfortable with switching to the supposed non-Trump Republican.

Chuck Idelson

It’s as if the last 400 years did not occur.

Much of the tortured corporate media and conservative Democratic analysis following Tuesday's election went to great pains to assure us that racism was not a critical driver in the Republican victory in the Virginia governor's race.

When Democrats running for office don't have a clear message about race and class, and don't speak to the needs and aspirations of all voters, the Republicans have made it clear they know how to fill the void.

The alternate explanations run wide. Returns in other states showed voter unhappiness with the party in power and the failure of Democrats in Congress to pass the reforms they've promised. Never mind that united Republican opposition, abetted by a handful of conservative Democrats, blocked the most far-reaching social insurance reforms in decades.

Repudiation of Democrats going "too far left"—based on a handful of results in Buffalo, Minneapolis, and the New York mayoral race—ignored other returns, including mayoral races in Boston, Dearborn, Pittsburg, and Santa Fe, and votes to increase the minimum wage to $15 in Tucson, reject increased police funding in Austin, promote rent control in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and reject cutting homeless shelter capacity in Portland.

And there's a strong case that on a national level Democrats failed to articulate a positive message on early successes such as the passage of the important American Rescue Plan last spring, with their majorities in Congress and the White House and the popular social insurance programs proposed by President Biden in the Build Back Better program.

However, Republican Glenn Youngkin's victory over Terry McAuliffe, a longtime darling of the Democratic Party establishment, was the centerpiece of the national debate—elevated nationally as the model for other Republican candidates to follow, now symbolized by House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy announcing plans to introduce a "parent's bill of rights" in Congress.                                                  

What made "education" a key issue for Virginia voters? Some pundits explained it as largely parental frustration after nearly two years of the pandemic, from school closures to opposition to masking and encouraging vaccination, as if that was unrelated to the framing of "parental rights" on education curriculum.

But the reality on the ground is less convincing:

  • After then-President Trump called for a ban on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and "unAmerican education" a few months before his eviction from the White House, at least eight GOP dominated states have passed laws and some 20 others introduced bills to ban CRT this year, though it is rarely, if ever, actually taught in K-12 schools, and most governors and legislators hyping it have no clue what CRT actually is.
  • Proponents of the ban have targeted writings by or about African Americans, including Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and even Ruby Bridges, as well as all education on slavery, segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and the legacy of racism.
  • There's a close crossover between white parents bombarding school boards—including clashes in Virginia suburbs—with opposition to CRT and school masking and vaccination policies, both causes linked to Trump and Trumpism.
  • While many in the media labored to portray Youngkin as a model "non-Trump" Republican, he survived a primary by embracing Trump talking points on "voter integrity" and rigged election theories, and a commitment to "patriotic education," the reference to Trump's attack on CRT and the laws in other states. Trump returned the favor, endorsing Youngkin, which was broadcast throughout the state.
  • During the general campaign, Youngkin pledged to ban CRT in Virginia classrooms "on day one... What we won't do is teach our children to view everything through the lens of race."
  • Youngkin seized on one of the most famous writings by a prominent Black writer on the reality of slavery as a model of what should not be taught. A complaint by a white parent that Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved in her high school son's AP English class gave him "night terrors" became fodder for a widely disseminated campaign ad
  • Fox News prioritized reporting on CRT, peddling the rhetoric and falsehoods about it for its avid Virginia viewers.
  • The disinformation campaign framed the issue early. A July poll described CRT as teaching "white children that they are oppressors." By August, another poll found that messaging about Youngkin never allowing CRT to be taught was the "most effective pro-Youngkin message among all voters and undecided voters." By October, a CBS survey found "school curriculums on race and history" was a bigger factor than taxes and mask policies. 

Youngkin did not have to show up to rallies wrapped in a Confederate flag to make racism a factor in the election.

The point of hammering away on CRT and using Morrison and her book on slavery was a not very subtle dog whistle to inflame the right-wing base which voted for him in record margins.

Youngkin did not have to show up to rallies wrapped in a Confederate flag to make racism a factor in the election.

It also served to make some white voters, especially in the D.C. suburbs, which turned Virginia blue in recent Presidential and state elections, comfortable with switching to the supposed non-Trump Youngkin.

One notable interview showed a white man queried what his "most critical issue" in the election was. His reply: "Not teaching them critical race theory." Asked to define CRT, he responds, "I'm not going to get into the specifics of it because I don't understand it that much, but what little bit I know I don't care for." It's not hard to guess why. 

Fanning the flames of racism in Virginia has a long history, of course. Virginia is the birthplace of chattel slavery in the English colonies of North America, with Black slavery introduced first in Jamestown, justified by racism, to enable the survival of a settlement near collapse.

Virginia's plantation class dominated early U.S. history, from signers of the Declaration of Independence to four of the first five Presidents. The most famous uprising of enslaved people, led by Nat Turner, occurred in Virginia, sparking an escalation in racist state and national laws.

Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy; its two most prominent generals were Virginians, it was the terrain of the largest number of Civil War battles, and ultimately surrender. The "Lost Cause" myth remained vibrant in the state. Virginia was home to the infamous 2017 "Unite the Right" deadly rally in Charlottesville. Exit polls Tuesday showed 60% of white voters opposed the removal of Confederate monuments. 

Schools as a focal point of racism also have long roots in Virginia. Black students struck against poor conditions in segregated Black schools, and a lawsuit challenging school segregation was part of what became the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision.

Virginia politicians developed a series of tactics under a campaign they labeled "Massive Resistance" to defy the court orders, from the selective repeal of compulsory school attendance laws to allocating public grants for whites to attend segregated private schools. 

When a federal judge finally ordered the desegregation of white-only schools, Virginia officials just closed many public schools, depriving many Black students of educational opportunity to prevent Black children from sitting in classrooms with white students.

"The past is never dead, it's not even past," William Faulkner famously wrote. And it was definitely not past in Virginia on November 2. When Democrats running for office don't have a clear message about race and class, and don't speak to the needs and aspirations of all voters, the Republicans have made it clear they know how to fill the void.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Chuck Idelson

Chuck Idelson

Chuck Idelson is the Communications Senior Strategist for National Nurses United, the nation's largest union and professional organization of registered nurses with 150,000 members.

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