Glenn Youngkin’s Complicated History on Critical Race Theory

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  • Glenn Youngkin
    American businessman and politician
Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty
Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty

In an effort to court skeptical right-wing voters, investment firm exec turned Republican candidate for governor of Virginia Glenn Youngkin has made banning critical race theory from public schools a cornerstone of his campaign.

But there are a couple of problems with Youngkin’s pledge. First, Virginia schools say CRT doesn’t appear in educational or training material. And second, just last year, Youngkin incentivized his employees to donate to organizations which champion the same social justice policies he now pledges to outlaw—and promised that his company would match those contributions.

Less than a week after the police murder of George Floyd, Youngkin’s company, sprawling private equity firm the Carlyle Group, put out a press release, signed by Youngkin and his co-CEO, Kewsong Lee, promising “a special match” offer to employees who donate up to $1,000 to any one of three social justice organizations: the Equal Justice Initiative, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the NAACP.

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“Carlyle has grown and prospered by deliberately building a fabric of partnership with diversity of experiences and perspectives. We are global. We are multi-cultural,” Youngkin’s statement said. “In keeping with our deep commitment to our core values, we will continue to invest even more resources towards Diversity and Inclusion, not only at our firm, but in support of certain organizations focused on driving change in our world.”

Those groups are vocal advocates for racial and social justice. EJI and the NAACP more specifically support and promote the academic and legal lines of inquiry now broadly known as “critical race theory”—the right-wing bogeyman of the campaign cycle which has, in recent months, become a totem for the Youngkin campaign.

In reality, CRT is an academic and legal framework which examines how systemic racism became laced through the fabric of American history, how it has shaped institutions and the daily lives and perspectives of citizens, and how best to address those injustices.

But the theoretical framework, which originated at Harvard Law School in the 1970s, has become the target of a fierce right-wing movement predicated on what amounts to a politically charged caricature. Fox News has consistently run segments on critical race theory and former President Donald Trump has made the issue a foundation of his core subjects of aggrievement.

And on the 2021 campaign trail, Youngkin appears to have teleported himself to join those voices at the far-right fringe of the political spectrum. It’s part of his campaign’s broader effort to tap into the conservative outrage machine, which includes hot-button issues like vaccine mandates and election trutherism.

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The former executive—who once credited diversity initiatives for his private sector success—now routinely denounces the theoretical framework which informs many of those same corporate initiatives.

In recent months, he adopted a zero-tolerance position on CRT in order to energize GOP base voters who may be skeptical of the wealthy suburbanite’s commitment to their hyper-conservative agenda, and he regularly taps that sign to remind them of the gulf between their politics and those of his Democratic opponent, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe.

“We’ve got to get critical race theory out of the schools,” Youngkin told right-wing talk show host Hugh Hewitt in May, 10 days after clinching the GOP nomination. The following month, Youngkin vowed to far-right personality Mark Anthony Gigliotti, “I’m going to tell you, as governor, we will not teach critical race theory in our schools.” He has more recently pledged to “ban” CRT from Virginia schools on “day one,” should he win the election next month.

In July, he told Hewitt that Virginia was watching “this critical race theory move its way into all schools across Virginia.” And in August, he told Fox News that, critical race theory had “moved into our school system and we have to remove it.”

Those claims, however, have been fact-checked as false by PolitiFact. The site pointed out that the Virginia state standards of learning do not mention CRT, and a number of public school districts have released statements denying that CRT appears in curricula or faculty training manuals.

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But Youngkin’s alignment with the CRT backlash appears to have evolved in response to early criticism from dyed-in-the-wool conservatives who initially saw the one-percenter as a charlatan.

Ahead of the primaries, Youngkin’s diversity outreach at Carlyle was blasted by right-wing outlets, including Breitbart, the Catholic News Service, and The Federalist. Those publications called Youngkin’s promise to match donations to the Southern Poverty Law Center an “unfortunate situation,” and a warning that GOP candidates with “business backgrounds will come with cultural baggage.”

Beyond SPLC, the other two organizations—the Economic Justice Initiative and the NAACP—have advocated using critical race theory as a channel for education and effecting policy.

The EJI website promotes “Public Education” among its three main focal points. In service of that vertical, the group published high school lesson plans, grounded in elements of CRT, to teach students about “Lynching in America.”

The suggested curriculum—released in 2019, the year before Youngkin’s matching donation offer—establishes a goal of helping teachers examine and reframe “dominant narratives rooted in white supremacy” which “have influenced their own culture, knowledge, and understanding of the world.”

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“There are convenient narratives that are widely circulated and taken as reasonable explanations for past and present injustices, allowing many to avoid any critical engagement with race. These dominant narratives on race have explained away racial injustice using some of the same logic that is under examination in these curricular materials,” the plan reads.

“While one does not need to be an expert in race theory to be able to teach students effectively,” the pan continues, “teachers will need to be sensitive to how dominant narratives rooted in white supremacy have influenced their own culture, knowledge, and understanding of the world, all of which impacts their teaching practice.”

“If we are educated in U.S. schools, we have been educated in white supremacy,” the plan says.

Amid the recent CRT political firestorm, EJI’s founder, Bryan Stevenson, opened a museum to encourage citizens to examine “how slavery has shaped American history.” The EJI also released a statement upon the death of Derrick Bell, widely acknowledged as the founder of CRT.

The EJI has this year lauded McAuliffe, Youngkin’s opponent, for his efforts as governor to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 formerly incarcerated felons.

For its part, the NAACP in January sued the Trump administration over an executive order designed to bar critical race theory from training and instruction manuals for federal contractors. The group has also continually pushed back against false narratives on the right that misconstrue the role CRT plays in public grade school curricula—which, again, is essentially nil.

In June, the NAACP also backed its vice president amid criticism from parents from a Fairfax County Parent-Teacher Association over misinterpreted remarks in a video.

At the time, Virginia was ground zero for anti-CRT protests. And on the same day, a school board meeting in neighboring Loudoun County made national news after it turned violent, leading to one protester’s arrest. One week earlier, Youngkin made his vow that Virginia schools would “not teach critical race theory” on his watch.

In a statement to The Daily Beast, Democratic Party of Virginia spokesperson Manuel Bonder contrasted the two approaches to education policy.

“Glenn Youngkin’s right wing, Trump-DeVos education agenda would gut education funding and decimate opportunities for students and families across Virginia. Virginians can’t afford a governor who only tells the truth when it comes to his love for Donald Trump and his plans to drag the commonwealth backwards,” Bonder said.

Youngkin spokesperson Matt Wolking would not answer The Daily Beast’s multiple attempts to discern whether Youngkin, either personally or via Carlyle Group, had given money to the EJI or NAACP. (A Carlyle spokesperson said on Monday that the firm would provide its own numbers, but had not done so by the time of publication.)

Wolking—formerly a deputy director of communications for Donald Trump’s campaign—also declined multiple times to explain Youngkin’s apparently recent about-face on social justice generally, or how he plans to “ban” CRT when school boards say it isn’t part of the curriculum or faculty training.

Instead, Wolking blamed McAuliffe for injecting CRT into those schools.

“Terry McAuliffe forced the divisive political agenda of critical race theory into Virginia schools, that’s why he’s so afraid to defend it now and wants to keep parents in the dark about what their children are being taught,” the spokesperson claimed.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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