It’s generally conceded that Terry McAuliffe’s statement “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” was a big blunder that contributed to his defeat last week. The context was a debate with his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, who had used his party’s playbook on Critical Race Theory and the “leftist” takeover of education. Not surprisingly, Youngkin hammered McAuliffe with this quote in TV and web ads.
So what should McAuliffe have said instead? Imagine a response like this: “My opponent wants our schools to take wide detours around any mention of racism in history, politics or economics. He says this is how parents can take back control of their kids’ education. I say exactly the opposite. Everything we’ve seen—opinion polls, demonstrations, and local school board conversations—tells us that Virginia’s parents want to improve education on all fronts, including better informed treatment of racial inequality and ways we can end it. They don’t want any particular ideology, but they do want schools that address racism honestly and reflect our shared desire to rise above it.”
You can change the words to your own liking, but the key point is that it is possible to be for both anti-racism and democracy in education.
So why wasn’t this the message in Virginia or in the United States overall? One reason might be the technocratic biases of the administrative class that has predominant power within the Democratic Party. They are for a properly managed education system insulated from the whims of the common folk who can only gum it up. Their knee jerk reaction to a Republican call for parents to rebel against progressive directions in education is to reject parental involvement in general.
Another reason, with historical roots in the first, is that the current dogma in anti-racism is that white supremacy is in America’s “DNA” (a biologically dubious metaphor), and that all whites, knowingly or not, are implicit racists whose biggest contribution to the cause would be to step aside and keep their mouths shut. If that’s what you think, the idea that a democratic upswell of parents, many or most white, could be a force for progress against racism is a dangerous illusion.
Is it no longer possible to even imagine a conjoining of popular power and opposition to bigotry? If not, we’re doomed.