These themes structured the Youngkin campaign. In a revealing postelection interview with Politico’s Ryan Lizza, Jeff Roe and Kristin Davison, two top Youngkin strategists, outlined their campaign plan, which included, but was certainly not limited to, highlighting critical race theory:
“One of our first advertising pieces in the general election — and one of the first things we hammered on — was that the Thomas Jefferson School in Northern Virginia had lowered their academic standards. It was then literally the first stop,” Roe said, moving on to describe the goal of uniting under the Republican banner seemingly disparate constituencies:
If you’re an Asian-American family going to Thomas Jefferson School and they lower the standards to let more kids who aren’t in accelerated math into the best school in the country, that’s pretty important to you. Advanced math is a big dang thing. But it also is to the Republicans: Why would you not help and want your children to succeed and achieve? So we were having a hard time; those people don’t fit in the same rooms together. You know, having school-choice people in the same room with a C.R.T. person with an advanced math [person] along with people who want school resource officers in every school — that’s a pretty eclectic group of people.
Achieving this goal received an unexpected lift from Terry McAuliffe’s now notorious gaffe during a Sept. 28 debate:
As Davison recounted the story to Lizza:
Within three hours of the debate where Terry said ‘I don’t think parents should be involved in what the school should be teaching, we had a video out hitting this because it tapped into just parents not knowing. And that was the fight. It wasn’t just C.R.T. That’s an easier issue to talk about on TV. That’s not what we focused on here; it was more “parents matter.” Launching that message took the education discussion to a different level.
Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins, captured the problem with a common progressive analysis of the Virginia election in “You Can’t Win Elections by Telling Voters Their Concerns Are Imaginary,” a Nov. 3 Atlantic essay — the idea that “Youngkin, an extremist posing in the garb of a suburban dad, was able to incite ‘white backlash’ by exploiting ‘fake’ and ‘imaginary’ fears about the teaching of ‘critical race theory’ in public schools.”
The truth, Mounk continued, “is rather different. Youngkin capitalized on a widespread public perception that Democrats are out of tune with the country on cultural issues.”
The idea that critical race theory is an academic concept that is taught only at colleges or law schools, Mounk continued, “might be technically accurate, but the reality on the ground is a good deal more complicated.” He noted that “across the nation, many teachers have, over the past years, begun to adopt a pedagogical program that owes its inspiration to ideas that are very fashionable on the academic left, and that go well beyond telling students about America’s copious historical sins.”
In some elementary and middle schools, Mounk wrote,
Students are now being asked to place themselves on a scale of privilege based on such attributes as their skin color. History lessons in some high schools teach that racism is not just a persistent reality but the defining feature of America. And some school systems have even embraced ideas that spread pernicious prejudices about nonwhite people, as when a presentation to principals of New York City public schools denounced virtues such as “perfectionism” or the “worship of the written word” as elements of “white-supremacy culture.”
While just under half of respondents (49 percent) described themselves as very or extremely familiar with critical race theory in a June Fox News poll, the theory, and arguments based on it, have become commonplace throughout much of American culture.
On Sept. 9, 2020, for example, Larry Merlo, then the chief executive of CVS, held a “Company Town Hall,” at which he invited Ibram X. Kendi to lead “a discussion on what it means to be antiracist.” Merlo asked Kendi to explain “what it means to be a racist.”
I first have to define a racist idea, which I define as any concept that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group in any way, and also to say that this is what’s wrong with a racial group, or what’s right, or what’s better, or worse, or connotations of superiority and inferiority. And a racist policy is any measure that is leading to inequity between racial groups.
The Racial Equity Institute offers programs lasting from 18 months to two years to battle racism, “a fierce, ever-present, challenging force, one which has structured the thinking, behavior and actions of individuals and institutions since the beginning of U.S. history.”
The institute, which cites the work of scholars like Kendi, Tema Okun and Richard Delgado, lists more than 270 clients including corporations, colleges and schools, foundations, hospitals and health care facilities, liberal advocacy groups and social service providers.