The first executive order signed by Glenn Youngkin, the new Virginia governor, seeks to keep “inherently divisive concepts” and Critical Race Theory out of his state’s public schools. Surprisingly, however, while CRT is banned, it is not defined. Perhaps the governor thought that it did not need a definition because everybody knows what it is, like air, the moon, Santa Claus, or the ills of communism. Much more likely is that Critical Race Theory went without explication because the drafters and signer of the executive order did not know how to define it. Or perhaps faced with defining it, they realized that they did not know what it is other than it was something bad. Or perhaps they thought that they’d know it when they see it, but don’t know how to put that feeling into words, which is really just another way of saying they don’t know what it means.
If those behind the executive order are as attuned to history as they want us to believe, then they know that banning or punishing something without a definition of the infraction has been a tool of autocrats. Without a clear definition, the uncertainty of what is and is not allowed chills behavior. People can only know after acting if their behavior will bring censure. The safest way to avoid the censure, then, is to stay far away from any line that might demarcate the impermissible. Imagine you are a social studies teacher who knows that twentieth century federal housing policies aided white but not Blacks in buying houses, and that for most Americans, homes are their most important financial asset. Blacks as a group have accumulated less wealth today than whites partly because of these housing policies. This is the good and bad of American history. The federal government aided people to buy homes, but it expressly discriminated against Blacks in the process with consequences for wealth inequality today. Would you teach this to your eleventh-grade class? Would you be teaching something out of Critical Race Theory and get into trouble? Where would you look for an answer as to whether this information is permissible? You would not find it in the executive order. Without clear, definitive guidance as to what constitutes Critical Race Theory, the response of many teachers, understandably, would be to avoid the topic entirely. And the result is that Virginia students get a poorer education.
Critical Race Theory is not defined in the order or are the concepts and ideas related to CRT, which also are banned. On the other hand, the governor did define “inherently divisive concepts.” The executive order states:
“For the purposes of this Executive order ‘inherently divisive concepts’ means advancing any ideas in violation of Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including, but not limited to of the following concepts (i) one race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith is inherently superior to another race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith; (ii) an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith, is racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously, (iii) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith, (iv) members of one race, ethnicity, sex or faith cannot and should not attempt to treat others as individuals without respect to race, sex or faith, (v) an individual’s moral character is inherently determined by his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith, (vi) an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, ethnicity, sex or faith, (vii) meritocracy or traits, such as a hard work ethic, are racist or sexist or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.”
Perhaps the reason that Governor Youngkin’s order defines inherently divisive concepts is because his education was thorough enough that he learned the value of cribbing. His definitions stem from an executive order of September 2020 by President Trump that prohibited federal governmental agencies and federal contractors from conducting any employment training that promoted “divisive concepts.” Nine concepts are listed with a catchall provision, and those have been slightly reworked and placed in the Virginia executive order. The major difference is that the federal order only referred to race or sex, but Virginia has expanded that to “race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith.” The addition of faith raises important issues.
An inherently divisive concept, according to the Virginia governor, is one that maintains that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her . . . faith.” However, faith, at least many believe, is not an immutable trait or characteristic that tells us nothing useful about a person’s character or merits, but a choice, and choices are worthy of judgment. Or at least that is what many religions profess. Whether one is baptized, goes to mass, keeps Kosher, prays five times a day to Allah…these things matter to those participating in such religious practices, and they affect both behavior and their feelings about non-practitioners. In other words, Glenn Youngkin has issued an executive order that labels churches as teaching inherently divisive concepts. The order, however, does not affect Sunday, Saturday, or Friday worship services. The order only tells schools not to teach the inherently divisive concepts, and that seems right. Schools should not suggest someone is a better or worse person because they are a Catholic or a Sunni Moslem.
On the other hand, religion is a tricky area. The order states that “we must provide our students with the facts and context necessary to understand” important historical events, and religion is often part of those facts and context. With this executive order in force, how should a teacher approach the Protestant Reformation or the Crusades or the role of religion in the Salem witch trials or the Inquisition or Mayan human sacrifice? Throughout history religion has often been an “inherently divisive concept.” Shouldn’t kids know that?
The order says that schools should teach about “the horrors of American slavery and segregation.” Imagine a student saying, “I have been reading how ministers in the pre-Civil War period preached that slavery was required by the Bible and that Blacks are inferior. I have also read how ministers in the 1950s and 1960s said that God requires segregation of the races.” What if, as would be appropriate, the student then asked, “Did religious people really believe that and do they believe that now?” What if the student goes on to suggest that someone’s moral character was lacking for holding such religious beliefs. What should the teacher do in response?
Or what should the teacher do during a discussion of the Holocaust when a student says, “But some religious people believed that Jews were Christ-killers.” If you were the teacher, might your thought be, “I am not going to teach anything that might lead to such provocative questions and comments. I want to keep my job.” And, of course, it is not just in history or social science classes where the inherently divisive concept of faith may come up. What should the biology teacher say when students flatly reject evolution because it contradicts the Bible?
I hope that no one in any Virginia public school is teaching “one race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith is inherently superior to another race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith.” (Of course, religions do teach that one faith is superior to another, and such teaching occurs in non-public schools.) I don’t want students to be taught that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith, is racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously,” but if I were to present materials that demonstrate that whites throughout American history have gained financial and social advantage from discrimination against other races, might I have been teaching an inherently divisive concept? Would it be worth the risk?
And then there is this definition of an inherently divisive concept: “members of one race, ethnicity, sex or faith cannot and should not attempt to treat others as individuals without respect to race, sex or faith.” Ok, call me stupid, or ignorant, or ill-educated, but I am not sure what that phrase means, even though I have read it several times. Could you explain it? Or is it just an example of sloppy thinking? If it does say something useful, couldn’t it be written more clearly? That it hasn’t been seems to say something disturbing about those who claim to know what is best for Virginia schoolkids.
Finally, go back and look at the entire definition of inherently divisive concepts. The phrase “race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith” appears six times except that half the time there is a comma after sex and half the time there is not. In a legal document, as the executive order is, a change in punctuation should mean a change in meaning, but if sex with or without a comma signals different meanings, I don’t get it. The meaning seems to be the same in all the phrases. Then, I thought, perhaps there is a raging debate I am not aware of in Virginia over the use of the Oxford comma, and Glenn Youngkin, ever the politician, doesn’t want to take a stand on this issue and with his split comma use hoped to mollify both Oxonians and non-Oxonians. If that is not the case, however, the haphazard appearance of the comma is just another example of the sloppy thinking and sloppy writing throughout the executive order. But even though they cannot think or write well, they are confident, Virginians, that they know what good education for the state’s public schools is.
You can all sleep easier knowing that.