The Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee is leading the conservative crusade against public school officials.
At the end of a campaign defined by equivocation, Glenn Youngkin has fully embraced the right-wing narrative on "critical race theory" and transgender panic in the final week before Virginia elects a new governor.
Youngkin became the Republican nominee for governor in large part by paying lip service to supporters of former President Donald Trump. Since winning his party's primary in May, however, Youngkin has tried to keep Trump at arm's length to appeal to more moderate voters.
But Youngkin isn't afraid of sounding too much like Trump anymore.
Youngkin has refused to commit to many concrete policy ideas during the campaign in a transparent bid to appeal to both moderate Virginian voters and hardcore conservatives. But Youngkin seems to have finally discovered a cause he feels passionate about in "critical race theory."
In multiple campaign ads, Youngkin's campaign has given a platform to a vocal minority of right-wing agitators who have been harassing school officials over so-called indoctrination of students in "critical race theory."
In reality, critical race theory is an educational approach to the study of race in American history, politics, and other areas that is mainly used in higher education and is not taught in K-12 schools. But that hasn't stopped conservative activists from using the phrase as a catchall term for curricula that acknowledge the United States' history of slavery, segregation, brutality, and other forms of racial oppression.
At a Saturday night rally outside Richmond, Youngkin declared that if elected, he would "ban critical race theory in our schools" on his first day in office.
"America has fabulous chapters, I mean, it's the greatest country in the world," Youngkin said at the rally. "But we also have some important chapters in our history, we must teach them but what we won't do, what we won't do is teach our children to view everything through a lens of race. We won't do this. I mean, we know in our hearts it's wrong."
Youngkin even invoked the legacy of the country's most celebrated civil rights leader to advocate against teaching students about the United States' history of racist violence.
"Dr. Martin Luther King implored us to judge one another based on the content of our character and not the color of our skin," Youngkin said. "And therefore, on day one, I will ban critical race theory in our schools."
"As a parent, it's tough to catch everything, so when my son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk. It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine," Murphy says in the Youngkin campaign ad. "I met with lawmakers. They couldn't believe what I was showing them. Their faces turned bright red with embarrassment."
One of those books was Toni Morrison's "Beloved," which reflects on the horrors of slavery in the United States and won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Murphy also fought to ban Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" and Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man." Morrison and Ellison are two of the most respected Black writers in American literature.
Murphy campaigned for House Bill 516, which would have required Virginia schools to notify parents if students were assigned books that contained "sexually explicit content." The bill would also have allowed parents to opt their children out of reading those books and let them read a substitute novel instead. The Virginia Legislature passed the bill in 2016, but then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed it.
The Youngkin campaign's most recent ad came amid a growing focus among Republicans nationally on what students are taught about race, as well as on public school policies that deal with students' sexuality and gender identity.
On Oct. 19, Youngkin called for an investigation into the Loudoun County School Board after allegations were made that the board had covered up two sexual assaults committed by a student at two separate schools. One of the victim's parents alleged that the two sexual assaults were committed by a "skirt-wearing" male student who forced his way into a girls' bathroom.
According to reports, in the first incident, on May 28, the then 14-year-old student met a female student in a girls' bathroom, where he sexually assaulted her twice. The boy, now 15, was found guilty on both counts in juvenile court on Monday, Oct. 25, and is awaiting sentencing.
In the second incident, on Oct. 6, the same male student allegedly "forced the victim into an empty classroom where he held her against her will and inappropriately touched her," according to the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office.
The sheriff's office has consistently identified the suspect as male. Neither incident was the result of school policies that are meant to be inclusive of transgender students — a fact that runs counter to the conservative media narrative surrounding the story.
But that didn't stop Youngkin's campaign from seizing on the case. Last weekend, Youngkin demanded the resignations of the Loudoun County School Board members and Loudoun County Superintendent Scott Ziegler. Emails showed that Ziegler knew about the sexual assault, despite his statements to the contrary.
In the interview with Fox News in which he called on the board and superintendent to resign, Youngkin claimed that administrators "actually endangered students by moving this young man — who in fact was being prosecuted for a sexual assault in another school — and enabled it to happen again."
At an Oct. 20 rally, Youngkin said he would station police officers in every Virginia public school.
"Every school will be required to have school resource officers on its campus. And let me be clear, they will be on every campus or that school will lose its funding," he said.
Youngkin's rhetoric seems to be working. Recent polling has the race as close as ever, with the candidates in a dead heat. An Emerson College/Nexstar Media poll released Tuesday shows McAuliffe and Youngkin both with 49% of the vote.
Loudoun County Attorney Buta Biberaj has called out conservative media and politicians for latching on to the story and accused them of exploiting the assaults for political gain.
"It's all about how they're taking these incidents and unfortunate circumstances, creating disinformation, done solely for the purpose of them promoting their agenda," Biberaj told HuffPost on Tuesday. "And that is unfortunate because we have real people who are living these experiences."
A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Ziegler.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.