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False Claims of Critical Race Theory in Virginia Schools Spark Resistance

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Ted Cruz joined Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for Virginia governor, on the campaign trail earlier this year. Youngkin, a former CEO at the Carlyle Group, is self-funding his campaign. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Over the weekend, dozens of parents and activists gathered outside of the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg to denounce efforts by their school district to teach about racism and racial equity.  

At the event, a banner read: “Education, not indoctrination. Stop Critical Race Theory Now!” 

Critical race theory is a framework for understanding systemic racism and privilege, first developed at Harvard Law School in the 1970s. PolitiFact's Amy Sherman writes that "In plain terms, critical race theory holds that racism is part of a broader pattern in America," reflected throughout society. 

And according to Loudoun County school officials, it’s a theory they aren’t teaching. Loudoun Superintendent Scott Ziegler dismissed those claims as “social media rumors” in March. 

“LCPS has not adopted Critical Race Theory as a framework for staff to adhere to. Social media rumors that staff members have been disciplined or fired for not adhering to the tenets of Critical Race Theory or for refusing to teach this theory are not true,” Ziegler said. 

Juli Briskman, a member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, says the backlash from some parents is due to an “ill-informed misinformation campaign designed to poke and inflame white fragility through fear mongering,” peddled by Republicans like Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin. 

In an interview with Fox News last week, Youngkin, Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, echoed anti-CRT rhetoric while discussing a recent Loudoun school board meeting. 

“Critical race theory is not an academic curriculum. It is a political agenda to divide people... What they are trying to do is indoctrinate our kids,” Youngkin said. 

Although Briskman dismisses the idea that critical race theory is a political agenda, she does say it’s not meant for teaching in K-12 schools. “CRT seeks to examine and evaluate our systems — from law, policy, finance, health care, housing — and it seeks to examine how race and systemic racism is ingrained in those systems, and then figure out how to dismantle it. We wouldn't be asking a fifth grader to do that,” she said. 

Briskman sent a letter of support to the Loudoun school board last week as its members prepared to reaffirm a 2019 commitment to “the condemnation of white supremacy, hate speech, hate crimes and other hate-based acts of violence.” That resolution followed a 2019 equity assessment that had found “a low level of racial consciousness” among Loudoun teachers, school staff and students. 

“Students had been reporting hate-based activities such as insults and slurs,” Briskman said. 

She calls the backlash to these reforms “the Massive Resistance of our generation,” evoking the memory of a 1950s-era policy used in Virginia to block the desegregation of public schools. While the fight against critical race theory remains rhetorical in Virginia, in other states, like Texas, it’s making its way into law. 

“It’s basically along the same lines as the fear of integration, and this is just an evolution of that,” Briskman said. 

Virginia Democrats are dismissing the outcry over critical race theory as a Republican talking point. When asked by a reporter, Democratic candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe called it a “right-wing conspiracy,” and in an interview with the New York Times, Gov. Ralph Northam called it “a dog whistle that Republicans are using to frighten people.” 

Faye Belgrave, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, says critical race theory is becoming an umbrella term used by politicians to encompass a wide range of progressive and equitable policies and practices, many of which don’t actually match the theory’s original definition. 

"It has become politicized by people who don’t really understand critical race theory, and by not understanding truly what critical race theory is, they have been using it for political division,” she said. 

In fact, critical race theory has been around for almost 50 years, and as Belgrave explains, the concept originated among legal scholars. The goal, she says, was to examine how laws intersected with issues of race, drawing connections between the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, to modern issues like red lining and racial disparities in prison sentencing.  

"CRT is simply a theoretical framework that helps to understand and address the role of race and racism in society,” Belgrave said. 

Joshua Cole, executive director of the Office of Strategic Engagement at the VCU School of Education, reiterates that critical race theory is “a lens for viewing the world” and “not a specific topic that’s being taught.” While critical race theory is not being incorporated into K-12 curricula in Virginia, Cole says it can provide a blueprint for educators to think more critically about the role race plays in their classrooms. 

“We’re talking about diversity, inclusion and equity. This work has been around for decades,” Cole said. “It’s just a process that can help us recognize what our implicit biases are, what institutional biases exist — which is the foundation for systemic racism — and how that impacts students in their performance.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Loudoun. It has been corrected. We've also updated the headline to avoid conflating modern resistance to racial education in schools with the historic movement against integration known as Massive Resistance.