After Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial election on November 2, print media outlets across the commonwealth rushed to explain why the Republican Party had seemingly surged statewide, from the governor’s race down to local school boards.
A lot of local coverage on the election results uncritically cited critical race theory — or, more euphemistically, “education” — as the issue that drew voters to Republican candidates, including Youngkin. In doing so, outlets often left out vital context: The debate over critical race theory is a made-up talking point from right-wing media.
In reality, critical race theory (CRT) is a broad framework of ideas that examines systemic racism in the United States. It is a graduate-level legal theory that is not taught in public K-12 schools. Right-wing media have turned it into a political bogeyman to incite anger from parents about schools teaching kids even basic facts about the history and lasting impacts of racism in the United States, while conservative politicians have used it as a wedge issue to harness racism for electoral gain and to wrest control of education.
During his campaign for governor, Youngkin said he would ban critical race theory from being taught in Virginia schools (it’s not being taught), misleadingly claimed McAuliffe didn’t think parents have a right to be involved in their children’s education, and aired a campaign ad featuring a white woman who had pushed to ban Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved from being taught in a local school. (Beloved depicts the experiences of a formerly enslaved Black woman and has nothing to do with CRT.)
After the election, local print media outlets often took right-wing concerns about CRT at face value, framing Youngkin’s fearmongering about CRT (or “education”) as part of what allowed him to pull ahead of McAuliffe without offering context about the root of the issue. And they also failed to provide that information when reporting on other local Republican candidates. They did not always mention that CRT is not taught in K-12 schools, and they largely failed to note that the right-wing discourse about school curricula and book banning is rooted in racism.
- A story in The Roanoke Times, also published in other Lee Enterprises papers, said a Virginia House of Delegates candidate, Wren Williams, “reiterated his opposition to teaching critical race theory in schools” after winning his election. This story did not mention that CRT is already not taught in K-12 schools in Virginia.
- In its early coverage of the gubernatorial race outcome, which was later updated to include more context, the Richmond Times-Dispatch (also republished in other Lee outlets) initially said euphemistically that Youngkin “gained momentum by emphasizing hot-button education issues and stressing parents’ role in their children’s schooling.” The article further stated that Youngkin had “vowed to eliminate ‘critical race theory’ from classrooms,” without fact-checking his misleading rhetoric.
- The (Harrisonburg) Daily News-Record covered a local school board election in which a conservative candidate appeared headed for a win by taking the candidate’s claims about CRT at face value, not mentioning that it’s not taught in schools: “In his speech Tuesday, Cross said he will keep a ‘watchful eye’ against critical race theory in Rockingham County Public Schools.”
- Inside NoVa reported that GOP candidate Steve Pleickhardt, who lost his bid for the Virginia House of Delegates, had “pressed the issues of parental choice in school curriculum, boosting accusations of critical race theory being taught in Northern Virginia schools.” This story did not fact-check those false “accusations.”
- In its coverage of Youngkin’s victory, Inside NoVa reported that McAuliffe “began to lose ground in late September as Youngkin latched on to the debate over critical race theory and focused on parental involvement in education issues.” This story also failed to note that the CRT “debate” is a manufactured issue.
- On Election Day, The (Petersburg) Progress-Index published the falsehood that kids are taught CRT in schools without pushback against the right-wing talking point: “A number of people voiced disagreements with the Critical Race Theory that is being taught in some schools. ‘Children don't need to be taught to hate when they don't hate to begin with,’ says Connie Webster, 73.”
While most outlets did not explain the inherent dishonesty of using CRT as a political tool, some did at least mention that it is not taught in Virginia schools. There was even some good analysis of the topic from local NBC affiliate NBC4 Washington.
- On November 2, the Danville Register & Bee reported that Youngkin had “blasted ‘critical race theory’” during the campaign, but noted that “critical race theory is not mentioned in the state's Standards of Learning,” and cited a PolitiFact article listing numerous Virginia schools that have said they do not teach it.
- The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress fact-checked Youngkin’s claims about CRT, writing that “critical race theory is a high-level academic framework that argues racism is embedded in legal systems and policies that's not part of the state K-12 curriculum.”
- An updated election story from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, republished in other Lee Enterprises papers in Virginia, noted that Youngkin “tapped cultural divisions” with his appeals to CRT. The paper wrote that “Youngkin bolstered his calls for an end to ‘critical race theory,’ a term Republicans use to refer to the teaching of systemic racism in schools, or broadly, talking about racism.”