On Virginia’s Election and a Battle That Has Already Been Lost
Thoughts on the “critical race theory” moral panic.,
On Tuesday, Virginians will vote to choose their next governor. The Democratic candidate is Terry McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014 to 2018 but was term-limited out of office. The Republican candidate is Glenn Youngkin, a private equity executive and newcomer to electoral politics.
There are real, material issues at hand in Virginia, where I grew up and where I currently live, from transportation and housing costs to climate, economic inequality and, of course, the commonwealth’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The battleground for this election, however, is culture, identity and the specter of the previous president.
McAuliffe and his supporters want Virginians to feel that a vote for Youngkin is a vote for Donald Trump. “I ran against Donald Trump and Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump,” said President Biden while speaking at a rally Tuesday night in Arlington. “We have a choice,” said McAuliffe at the same event. “A path that promotes conspiracies, hate, division, or a path focused on lifting up every single Virginian.”
Youngkin, for his part, wants Virginians to know that a vote for McAuliffe is a vote for “critical race theory.” Not the legal discipline that deals with the distance between formal and actual equality, but the idea, spread by right-wing activists and their wealthy supporters, that public schools are teaching a racist ideology of guilt and anti-white sentiment. Youngkin’s singular message has been that he will keep this “critical race theory” out of Virginia’s schools.
What this means, if the rhetoric of Youngkin’s strongest supporters is any indication, is an assault on any discussion of race and racism in the state’s classrooms. In an interview with the journalist Alex Wagner, a leading Republican activist in Virginia said exactly this, asserting that it should be “up to the parents” to teach students about racism and condemning a school assignment in which a sixth grade student blamed President Andrew Jackson for violence against Native Americans.
Try to imagine what this would look like.
Virginia is where African slavery first took root in Britain’s Atlantic empire. It is where, following that development, English settlers developed an ideology of racism to justify their decision to, as the historian Winthrop Jordan put it, “debase the Negro.” It is where, in the middle of the 18th century, a powerful class of planter-intellectuals developed a vision of liberty and freedom tied inextricably to their lives as slave owners, and it is where, a century later, their descendants would fight to build a slave empire in their name.
And all of this is before we get to Reconstruction and Jim Crow and massive resistance to school integration and the many other forces that have shaped Virginia into the present. Just this week came news of the death of A. Linwood Holton, elected in 1969 as the state’s first Republican governor of the 20th century. Holton integrated Virginia schools and broke the back of the segregationist Byrd machine (named for the domineering Harry F. Byrd), which controlled the state from the 1890s into the 1960s.
To take discussions of race and racism out of the classroom would, in practice, make it impossible to teach Virginia state history beyond dates, bullet points and the vaguest of generalities.
One of the closing advertisements from the Youngkin campaign features a woman who took umbrage over Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” after her son, a high-school senior, said that the book gave him nightmares when he read it as part of an A.P. English class. (I do not doubt that this is true, but I also think that if Black students have to encounter racism — and speaking from experience, they do — then white students should at least have to learn about it.)
Democracy requires empathy. We have to be able to see ourselves in one another to be able to see one another as political equals. I think history education is one important way to build that empathy. To understand the experiences of a person in a fundamentally different time and place is to practice the skills you need to see your fellow citizens as equal people even when their lives are profoundly different and distant from your own. This is why it’s vital that students learn as much as possible about the many varieties of people who have lived, and died, on this land.
This democratic empathy is, I believe, a powerful force. It can, for example, lead white children in isolated rural Virginia to march and demonstrate in memory of a poor Black man who died at the hands of police in urban Minnesota.
I do not know who will win the Virginia election. It looks, at this point, like a tossup. But I do know that, viewed in the light of empathy and its consequences, the panic against critical race theory looks like a rear-guard action in a battle already lost: a vain attempt to reverse the march of a force that has already done much to undermine hierarchy and the “proper” order of things.
What I Wrote
My Tuesday column was on the history of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment and why Congress should expel those members who played a part in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
If the ultimate goal of Section 3, in other words, was to preserve the integrity of Congress against those who would capture its power and plot against the constitutional order itself, then Representative Bush is right to cite the clause against any members of Congress who turn out to have collaborated with the plotters to overturn the election and whose allies are still fighting to “stop the steal.”
My Friday column was a little more introspective than usual, as I tried to explain why I keep writing about structural and institutional changes I know will never happen:
All of this is to say that I do not write about structural reform because I believe it will happen in my lifetime (although, of course, no one knows what the future will hold). I write about structural reform because, like Dahl, I think about and want readers to think expansively about American democracy and to understand that it is, and has always been, bigger than the Constitution.
Keisha Blain on Fannie Lou Hamer for Time.
Ali Karjoo-Ravary on Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of “Dune” for Slate.
Garrett Epps on critical race theory for Washington Monthly.
Talia B. Lavin on corporal punishment in her Substack newsletter.
Anna Gaca on the Clash for Pitchfork.
Andrea Stanley on the trauma of climate change in The Washington Post Magazine.
Feedback If you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please consider recommending it to your friends. They can sign up here. If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week’s newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at email@example.com. You can follow me on Twitter (@jbouie) and Instagram.
Photo of the Week
Here is something a little more lighthearted than what I’ve written this week. It is from Dinosaur Kingdom II, a bizarre attraction near the Luray Caverns in central Virginia. It features life-size dinosaur figures engaged in pitched battle with Union soldiers. It’s very strange. I visited not long after moving back to Virginia and wasted a few rolls of film taking pictures. This was one of the keepers.
Now Eating: Creamy Cashew Butternut Squash Soup
This is a great, if nontraditional, butternut squash soup. My only recommendation is that you should roast your butternut squash before adding it to the pot. I prefer to cut a squash into large chunks and then roast it at around 400 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, to develop the flavor of the squash. It’s a little extra work, but you won’t regret it. Recipe comes from NYT Cooking.
3 tablespoons olive oil or unsalted butter
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 cup raw cashews
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 large butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch dice
5 cups vegetable or chicken stock, plus additional if needed
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup coconut milk, plus additional
1 sprig fresh rosemary
In large stockpot or Dutch oven set over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil until shimmering. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the cashews and cook, stirring, until the onions are translucent and the cashews have slightly browned, about 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add the squash, broth, ginger, cumin, coriander, curry powder and turmeric and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and bring the soup to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook the soup until the squash is easily pierced with a knife, 20 to 25 minutes. Uncover the soup and let it cool for 15 minutes.
Starting on slow speed and increasing to high, puree the soup in small batches in a blender until smooth. Place a towel over the top of the blender in case of any splatters. You can also use an immersion blender (let the soup remain in the pot), but it will take longer to puree until smooth.
If using a blender, return the soup to the pot, add the coconut milk and rosemary sprig, and cook over low heat, covered, until slightly thickened, for about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready. If serving the soup later, while reheating the soup, thin it out with more broth or coconut milk until the desired consistency.