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Youngkin administration rescinds equity initiatives, concerning experts

Person speaks into microphone
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks at a 2021 campaign event in Stafford County. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, has rescinded several equity-focused programs and initiatives that the office claims promote “inherently divisive concepts.” The office seeks to define “inherently divisive concepts” as those that violate title IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But multiple experts and legal scholars told VPM News that using the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to rescind programs aimed at addressing the impacts of past discrimination on marginalized groups warps and perverts the intent of the act.

David Hinojosa, director of the educational opportunities project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says, “it's quite outlandish to suggest that diversity, equity and inclusion training materials that will help students access the learning they need  – especially students of color  – violate the title six of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

He added reports like this one are “politically charged opinions” with no strong legal theories or arguments. He and several other groups submitted a joint civil rights letter to the Texas attorney general last fall arguing against attempts to prohibit anti-racist ideas and teachings informed by critical race theory, an academic framework for understanding how systemic racism operates. They argued the attempts run counter to the principles of the First and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

“The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is one of the most comprehensive  – or maybe the most comprehensive – undertaking to prevent and address discrimination in a variety of institutions,” said Rachael Deane with the Education Law Center.

Title IV of the act called for the desegregation of public schools, which had already been mandated by Brown v. Board of Education but was being denied in southern states. Title VI prohibited federal funding flowing to entities that discriminate on the basis of race.

“It became the oversight and enforcement mechanism for the federal government to dismantle racial caste in public education in the South in particular,” said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. “And so to see it turned inward like this is really disturbing.”

The use of the act in efforts to repeal equity initiatives is also disturbing to Dennis Parker, executive director of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.

“One of the things that disturbs me most is the fact that it uses language of anti-discrimination law to do the exact opposite,” Parker said. “The idea that trying to address discrimination is discriminatory is something that is both perverse and extremely disturbing.

“The thought that the kinds of programs that companies and businesses now routinely enter into to assure that their workplace is non-discriminatory would be illegal in schools in Virginia…this is an extremely regressive and disturbing trend. And it's one that guarantees that unfairness will continue, it takes away the tools that are necessary to address prior discrimination and present discrimination.”

Misunderstanding of equity

Brandy Huderson is a consultant for Avent Diversity Consulting, which runs DEI workshops and trainings. She says rescinded programs like VDOE’s Diversity Equity, Inclusion Audit Tool and a VDOE initiative promoting cultural competence were good first steps in beginning to address educational inequities.

“We have to deal with the fact that America is becoming more and more diverse every day,” Huderson said. “And so we have to have a way to communicate with people across different ethnic groups, different cultures, different socio-economic groups.”

And she says the fact that these programs are being rescinded makes clear that there’s a real misunderstanding about what equity actually is. For example, Huderson says many people think that equity means that another student must be losing something as the result of another receiving equitable access.

“And that's not what it is,” Huderson said. “It's not about taking anything from those who have. It's about sharing, which is a concept that we learned in preschool.”

Students’ out-of-school experiences affect their education, Huderson says, meaning some need extra support to offset challenges.

“If a student doesn't study, but they have been given every tool they need [to be successful] that's a different conversation,” Huderson said. “But if a student isn't studying because they don't have books, or if a student didn't study because they have to work because they have to help to support their families, if a student didn't study because they are at home being a primary caregiver, because their parents are having to work 2,3, 4 jobs because they cannot afford to make enough at one job to take care of their family...that is a different conversation to have, and that's where equity comes in. We're providing the support that our students need to get them up to level."

Huderson says equity and individual student achievement are not mutually exclusive, which Balow’s report implies.

“We can't have one without the other,” Huderson said. “If we have students who are still learning English, but we expect them to be able to perform to the same level as native English speakers…how is that possible?

“We cannot hold students to the same standard if we have students that are starting off in different places due to no fault of their own. We cannot expect students to overperform and overcome all of these barriers every single day and at the same time achieve, at the same time perform at these high levels.”

Deane, with the Education Law Center, says the report’s interpretation of the equity work “is not an honest and accurate restatement of how equity is defined by these programs.”

Deane says she’s seen the fruits of EdEquityVA – another initiative that’s been rescinded –  which she says was supported by evidence and research. And she says taking these initiatives away now ultimately harms students the most.

“Educators and parents and students had a common language to talk about how and why student outcomes do differ based on race, gender, or zip code and how to stop that predictability,” Deane said. “There was much more discussion about marginalized students and students who are economically disadvantaged, and the additional educational needs they have, there was much more focus on opportunity gaps, the issues that actually contribute to the quality of education a child receives, and the circumstances they bring with them when they when they enter a school building.”

Preservation of white comfort

Parker says Youngkin’s moves follow a historical pattern of willful blindness that’s driven by an unwillingness to acknowledge, confront and address inequities that are uncomfortable for white people to talk about.

“After Reconstruction, there was suddenly all this talk about how Black people would no longer be the special beneficiary of laws and that white people were suffering more and that it was destructive to talk about the history of discrimination, and this is 30 or 40 years past the Civil War,” Parker said. “And that kind of argument has kept coming up.”

Joseph Williams, professor of education at the University of Virginia, says the arguments stem from a failure to understand systemic inequities in the United States.

“If you don't understand the need for equity, it becomes reverse discrimination to you,” Williams said. “And so there has to be this acknowledgment that racism exists, that it’s very prevalent, that it actually operates in terms of policies, practices, and procedures, rules – whether they're written or unwritten – that are working to advantage some, those who self-identify or are perceived to be white, and they disadvantage others, people of color.”

Williams says much of Youngkin’s report is based on white comfort and a misconception of critical race theory. He adds what’s actually divisive is ongoing racism and its impacts on people – not having a conversation about it or privilege.

“These are some uncomfortable realities to wrestle with. And there's a fear that if you teach kids about this ugly part of history, and what's going on in society today, particularly white kids, that they're going to internalize these things and not like themselves anymore,” Williams said. “I don't think there's anything that supports that.

“Actually, there is research that shows just the opposite, that kids are actually more likely to develop what we consider to be critical consciousness…this critical awareness of self and others in the world in which we live in. And because of that, they're more likely to be tolerant and more likely to stand up and identify injustice when they actually see it.”

White parents in the U.S. often fail to adequately address race, racism and systemic racial inequities with their children, contributing to an effect called color-blind racism, which is well documented by sociologists and psychologists.

Research has found that addressing race and racism with children actually decreases prejudice, stereotypes and biases against other groups, for example. Students are also less likely to internalize racism if taught about it at a young age.

Research has also found white Americans remain the most segregated in their social networks, which Siegel-Hawley says contributes to a lack of understanding about how racism continues today.

“When you don't interact meaningfully with people who have different experiences, whether it's based on race, or religious background, or economic background, then it just reinforces this myopic understanding of how society functions,” Siegel-Hawley said. “And it can make it really difficult to understand how pervasive racial discrimination remains.”

Williams says he doesn’t think teacher education programs are doing a really great job of preparing educators to have conversations about race within classrooms either, but suggested they could learn from historically Black colleges and universities, which have been at the forefront of this work.

Those same HBCUs – including HBCUs in Virginia – have become the target of a wave of bomb threats the FBI is currently investigating as racially-motivated hate crimes.

“I think why we see bomb threats to these universities is because they really symbolize, I think, where parents and maybe other educators are hoping that mainstream education moves towards, which is: let’s have these conversations,” Williams said.

Disclosure: Avent Diversity Consulting has conducted DEI training with all VPM staff.