Politics and Government

ANALYSIS: How Education Divided Black and White Women in Virginia Elections

By Courtney Williams

Five years ago, it was difficult to demonize Toni Morrison or her books. She was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, as well as the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Presidential Medal of Freedom had been bestowed upon her. She was a woman, and she was Black.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe was governor of Virginia, elected with 90 percent of the Black vote. So when Republicans in the state legislature pushed through a measure that would have banned her acclaimed 1987 novel, “Beloved,” on the basis that some parents thought it was too sexually explicit for their children, he vetoed the bill.

Running for a second nonconsecutive term this fall, McAuliffe said essentially the same thing when some parents were objecting to school boards implementing curriculum that they said was Critical Race Theory (CRT), and some again mentioned “Beloved.”

McAuliffe still garnered 90 percent of the Black vote, but White voters, especially women, chose Republican Glenn Youngkin, who had promised to ban CRT his first day in office, even though it is not taught in any Virginia school. That declaration, political observers have concluded, put McAuliffe on a path to defeat.

His ill-fated strategy appeared to coincide with a  Democratic effort, often articulated by President Biden, to unite Americans, so he essentially defended the right of legitimately-chosen school boards to have the final say on public school policy.

Education that includes the far-reaching effects of systemic racism over the years is lauded as a way to foster better understanding among Americans of how the nation arrived at the point it is now, was the implicit rationale.

Youngkin, on the other hand, went on the offensive, weaponizing an issue ostensibly about education—but in so many ways about race, ethnicity, immigration and gender—as something to attack in what many have come to call culture-war politics, dividing groups of Americans one from another.

It, too, had a larger dimension. National Republican strategists are seizing on an opportunity to cultivate votes in local and state elections by coupling parental opposition to masking and vaccination mandates in the schools to other issues where they believe they can create a partisan advantage.

“Now is the time to capture these parents for the long-term,” Tina Descovich, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, a self-styled parental rights group in Florida, told The Washington Post in October. “If you miss this opportunity, when they are really engaged [during the pandemic], it’s going to be hard to engage them in the future.”

For decades, parents being actively involved in the education of their children has been a goal of public schools. A critical part of that involvement has been the election of school boards and and selection of school administrators to shape that education and to manage diverse concerns in the district.

Yet, changing demographics have in many places pushed such beliefs to their edges, including in Loudoun County, a second-tier suburb of Washington where Youngkin spent the closing days of the contest and did better than some had expected.

Loudoun’s White student population, 84 percent 25 years ago, is down to 43 percent, reduced in part by an influx of the children of immigrants working in technology jobs. The county is on track to become more like other Virginia and Maryland suburbs of the nation’s capital with a majority or near-majority White population, but with White students a decreasing minority in the public schools.

The situation is similar in other parts of Virginia, where, historically, many White parents have resisted persistent events to give up domination of public school policy in the face of calls and federal mandates for desegregation.

Control of public school policy becomes a zero-sum game for those who have had overwhelming control in past years. As school board electors become more diverse, so, too, do the boards, and along with that, the policies and the curriculum. One approach can no longer best serve all. The present and the future win; the past loses out. 

Not surprisingly, Youngkin’s appeal seemed to resonate especially well among women, who as a group are the principal parents involved in the education of their children.

“He activated white women to vote in a very specific way that they feel like is protecting their children,” Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor Jatia Wrighten told The Washington Post. “White women felt like this was a way to protect their children from the unknown of critical race theory.”

Youngkin’s running mate was a Black woman, longtime conservative Republican and former state legislator Winsome E. Sears, who will become Virginia’s first female lieutenant governor. Many of her stated views reflected some of the frustrations with public schools that have prompted increases in the number of Black parents who support home-schooling, charter schools, and school choice.

But exit polls suggest that she did not sway many Black Virginians to vote Republican, perhaps in part because she so often echoed Youngkin’s view on the race theory issue and other standard GOP tropes.

“It’s going to be detrimental to our schools and not what we want. It supposedly is to help someone who looks like me and I’m sick of being used by the Democrats and so are many people who look like me,” Sears said on a “Fox & Friends” television interview shortly after winning the party’s nomination in May.

“We need critical reading theory, critical science and technology theory. This is what our children need in order to get ahead,” she told The Washington Times.

With a Black woman on the ticket voicing the standard conservative line, White women, the most critical group of swing voters having to choose in a binary election, could vote against critical race theory and explain that vote as more partisan than racial.

In doing so, University of Southern California professor Jane Junn told The Post, those women were only demonstrating the degree to which they have been the GOP’s secret weapon in elections over the past 70 years.

“Why have we been unable to see the elephant in the room?” Junn asked. “The elephant in the room,” she answered, “is a Republican voter. And she’s white and female.”

Sears’s broader educational platform included an emphasis on higher literacy rates, raising teacher pay, providing more opportunities for charter schools, expansion of school choice and other ways to avoid public school policies that have funneled Black children into historically underperforming and often dangerous neighborhood schools.

Some of those issues, including home schooling, have in the past been viewed as favorites of conservatives and the overwhelmingly White religious, educational and political right. But change is afoot.

Only two percent of Black families home-schooled in 2010, for example, but by the spring of 2020 the number went up a point to three percent. Then the pandemic hit, and by the fall of that year, it was 16 percent—nearly one of every six Black families, the Census Bureau reported.

Researchers explain the trend as an outgrowth of Black parents’ dissatisfaction with public school systems in some ways similar to the frustration of White parents, but with a significant difference in what underlies that frustration.

While White parents may be concerned about what is included in the lessons taught, for example, Black parents tend to worry about what is left out. In the case of U.S. history, that difference can mean the worst aspects of slavery, lynch law, Jim Crow injustice, and the ways in which they still affect society.

In world history, it can mean a less Euro-centric point of view than has traditionally been the case, and it also can include the quality of faculty, staff and resources, the  amount of attention given to higher achievers rather than underachievers, and the degree that children are physically out of danger during school hours. That danger can come from other students, police, school resource officers and other school personnel.

And it can mean dissatisfaction even in districts where the school board, administration and staff are significantly or majority not White.

In some school districts around the nation, White parents have objected to curricula that focus more on race as being inappropriate because it makes their children feel bad afterwards and is therefore inappropriate for a public education environment.

Despite the praise for Toni Morrison’s writing, there are passages in “Beloved” that many would find objectionable reading, New York Times opinion columnist Charles M. Blow wrote a week before the November election.

Enslaved men are described as having sex with cows, as well as dreaming of rape; but the book also talks about White men raping a Black woman who subsequently kills her own child to prevent the girl from living under slavery.

“To be sure, this is not delicate fare,” Blow wrote, but the novel “accurately and brutally portrays slavery as a horrific institution that eats away at the souls and sanity of both enslaver and enslaved. In the presence of that much savage inhumanity, the borders of morality blur or are completely obliterated.”

“There is no way to teach slavery accurately while omitting sexual violence,” he added. “Rape and perversion are central to the slave narrative. Violence came not only from the lash, but also from lust.”

And while such truths may be disturbing to White children, they may be equally or even more disturbing to children of color.

Geography also played a part in the GOP victory. Virginia’s more rural areas are traditional Republican strongholds, not the city-centered areas where population growth has been more robust in the past three decades.

The capital city of Richmond and its suburbs, the Hampton Roads area that includes Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Newport News, and the Virginia suburbs closest to the nation’s capital comprise the state’s urban crescent—its bluest areas, and the places driving increased Democratic voting strength.

Women are the majority of the voters in those areas, and among Black residents, women outnumber men. Nationwide, a trickle of Black men have voted Republican recently, but the women have remained more consistently Democratic.

For instance, Sears, the Republican lieutenant governor-elect, was anti-abortion rights in her campaign. That put her at odds with Black women nationally, who have broken with conservative voters who oppose abortion and voted against measures that some have said take from them control over their own bodies and give it to White men.

Wrighten, the Virginia Commonwealth University professor, said what happened in Virginia was typical of a racial divide among female activists that has been present in feminist movements over the years.

“White women,” she told The Post, “have always had the privilege of being White.”

December 17, 2021

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Milton Coleman