In the first months of the gubernatorial race in Virginia, the eventual winner, Glenn Youngkin, trailed the Democrat, former Governor Terry McAuliffe, so decisively that Republican pundits started claiming voter fraud long before a vote was cast. In an act of political desperation, like clockwork, Youngkin leaned on what many candidates have done before him—a made-up Black boogie man to rile up voters. Instead of the Black Menace trope, the super-predator device, or the potential horrors of school busing, critical race theory (CRT) was the boogie man of choice used to stoke the Republican base and peel off white Democrats.
“[T]here’s no place for critical race theory in our school system,” said Glenn Youngkin on Fox News. “[A]nd why, on day one, I’m going to ban it.”
Let me explain what CRT is since most people don’t have a clue. Critical race theory is a theoretical framework that helps scholars identify and respond to institutionalized racism, particularly as it is codified in law and public policy. It originated in the 1970s with scholars like Derrick Bell, the first tenured Black law professor at Harvard Law, and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. For the most part, CRT was stuck in the proverbial ivory tower within a few departments here and there, away from mainstream conversations. It certainly isn’t taught in public schools.
However, the hysteria around CRT was manufactured to be replicated by political hopefuls like Youngkin.
“We have successfully frozen their brand—’critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions,” wrote conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who is credited with creating the misinformation campaign, according to The Washington Post. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’”
Legislators are subsequently using the manufactured panic to drive a policy agenda. For instance, a Texas state lawmaker asked schools statewide to disclose whether approximately 850 books are part of their collections, for the texts “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex,” according to NPR reporting.
Conservatives are consequently using bans on CRT to eliminate subjects students should be learning including slavery, Jim Crow Racism, voter suppression, and housing and school segregation because they are significant parts of American history. In addition, they are attempting to assuage feelings of guilt and accountability. We can’t dare have children know how their ancestors and government created these policies.
To advance a policy agenda, Youngkin and Rufo stole a page from the racist election playbook, to say “look out for the boogie man,” or in this case, CRT. It’s the same playbook that television reality star Donald Trump used to place himself in the political spotlight. Trump instead used birtherism as his boogie man.
Youngkin’s keys to victory also make my second point. You certainly don’t need Donald Trump to use racist devices to win elections. You can do that on your own. Many conservatives will be relieved of this fact.
We should also learn from the fall elections that Trump is certainly not a political savant, nor does he have to be on the ticket in 2024. Trump didn’t invent racism, rather racism invented Trump and other political characters.
Another predictable outcome of the election is our seemingly never-ending focus on how to rally or regain the votes of white people. Some of the post-election headlines read, “Virginia: What was behind the shift of White women toward the GOP?,” “White women voters and the dismantling of democracy.,” and “How white women helped propel Republicans to victory in Virginia.” While analysts regularly compare significant changes from one election to the next, there is also a tendency to center the analysis on white people.
Perhaps, rather than focusing on how to win white votes, pundits should investigate the playbooks of the many African Americans who won last week. For instance, Ed Gainey became Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor. In Cleveland, Justin Bibb, another Black male, won big. In Boston, Michelle Wu, a progressive candidate of Asian descent, bested her more moderate challenger, Annissa Essaibi George, another person of color. In New York City, Eric Adams, another Black male, won his general election by a large margin. What was their playbook? Shouldn’t we analyze what policies propelled their candidacies?
Amidst all the angst about the “nation’s mood” it is important to note that it almost always ends up being about white wants, which spurs numerous recruitment strategies for white people. In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, pundits and elected officials repetitively said how Democrats were out of touch with “working class” (read white) voters. This was followed by the shallow, woefully imprecise claim of how Democrats are using identity politics to the detriment of the party. Extending flimsy arguments that Democrats and people of color are the only ones playing identity politics gets to my last point that Black people—not racism—are cast as an inconvenient problem for Democrats. Black Lives Matter, defund the police, and CRT are ideas created by Black people and are blamed for why Democrats lost. Black people are charged with being divisive for demanding basic rights and dignity.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with Black people that ending racism can’t solve.
Segregation, housing and school discrimination, and biased policing and criminal justice systems literally divided the country, not CRT. Yet Youngkin can ban CRT in schools where it doesn’t exist. What is clear and present are attempts at voter suppression, removing actual history from school curricula, as well as the racist boogie men that ostensibly can win elections.