Republican Glenn Youngkin ran and won for governor mindful that Virginia is more than a blue-ish state with competing characteristics: That it’s largely suburban but abides its rural roots. That it’s of the South but nationally oriented. That its past, while not entirely sterling, is not without brilliance. That long exclusive, often in the worse sense of the word, it toils to become inclusive. That its economy, previously dominated by agriculture and manufacturing, now largely runs on brainpower.
More than Virginia’s identity, these tangibles and intangibles comprise Virginia’s brand. But is that brand — a constant that makes an enduring statement, requiring occasional fine-tuning to remain effective — imperiled?
Unlike a consumer product that sheds a troubling name or image to protect its market share — think: Uncle Ben’s rice and Aunt Jemima syrup, both of which relied on Jim Crow stereotypes of Black people — Virginia seems to be embracing symbols that could diminish its competitiveness.
Most notably, there is Youngkin’s war on wokeness.
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Without the sass of Donald Trump or the snarl of Ron DeSantis, Youngkin has vowed to erase certain race-teaching in Virginia’s public schools. Youngkin said as a candidate — and repeats as governor — that curricula should be purged of purportedly divisive topics. This includes color and culture, yet Youngkin insists he is committed to students learning the good and the bad, though he’s never really defined either.
It’s the us-against-them manner in which Youngkin goes about pressuring educators to rewrite lesson plans that is proving divisive, threatening to restore an outdated notion of Virginia that — because of a long Democratic win streak, coupled with revulsion over George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police — was just beginning to be brought up to date.
A state synonymous for 400 years with slavery and segregation, and the laws and occasional violence employed by whites to enforce both, cannot, over the four years of a nonrenewable governorship or two, consider itself reconstructed on nagging issues of equity — a word banned in the lexicon of Youngkin officialdom — that still play out in the economy, schools, the courts and on the streets.
Further, that Youngkin is using vigilantism — the email-based snitch line for reporting supposedly woke teachers — to root out this source of white rage will telegraph beyond Virginia’s borders that the state, in which 42% of residents are Black, Asian and Hispanic, is uncomfortable in its skin.
Public polling in the early weeks of an administration that’s barely 3 months old suggests a majority of voters disagree with Youngkin’s approach; that he is accommodating the few at the expense of the many.
Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership found that 63% believe students should be taught racism and its effects, and 59% oppose banning critical race theory, an academic concept not taught in Virginia but is shorthand among conservatives for the indoctrination of a captive audience: impressionable kids.
And Youngkin’s hissing matches with the teachers union and the superintendents over his elimination of racially laden instructional material supplied by the state Department of Education — rather than give parents a veto over what their children study — threatens the collaboration among parents, students, educators and policymakers on which successful schools depend.
Further, that Youngkin, in his quarrel with the community college system over the selection of a new chancellor, is signaling he wants greater control over Virginia’s historically independent public colleges and universities — long partners to business and magnets for economic growth — should be an alarm that the preferred remedy to a perceived leftward drift on campus is a hard-right hammer wielded top-down.
This has implications for the nuclear arms race that is the competition among states for new or expanded corporate investments and is arguably more about attracting talent — white and non-white, straight and LGBTQ — to a workplace that, because of the coronavirus pandemic, is now actual and virtual.
Talent migrates to Virginia, where — even as more people move out than move in — the majority of residents are non-natives. And not just because it is in the immediate orbit of Washington, D.C. This accident of geography powers the state’s economy — one in three dollars can be attributed to federal largess. Location also ensures Virginia ready access to the venerable capital hubs of the Northeast and new manufacturing centers of the South.
But to attract and keep talent demands a welcoming social environment, reliable schools, an unmatched quality of life and affordability, measured, in part, by predictable taxes. Virginia ranks 34th among states in tax burden, according to WalletHub.
Even Youngkin, whose tax-cut package triggered the continuing House-Senate impasse on spending, admits his proposal to temporarily suspend fuel taxes won’t save inflation-jittery Virginians much money. That he recognizes this is a sure sign Virginians do, and that they understand record gas prices are a result of circumstances beyond their control, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a production decline because of COVID-19, and rising demand attributed to job gains that have more people driving.
Another important factor in preserving the Virginia brand: the company the state keeps. That it’s courting the Washington Commanders football team with a $350 million scheme for a taxpayer-subsidized stadium in Northern Virginia might have been a point of pride were it not the club’s seamy image, controversial management and tin ear. Put another way: These are not people most of us would want in our neighborhood.
A U.S. House committee is investigating the NFL’s response to allegations of sexual harassment within the Commanders organization, focusing on, among others, majority owner Dan Snyder, who long resisted dropping the team’s former name — one viewed as demeaning of Native Americans. The inquiry is expanding to include possible financial improprieties by the team, The Washington Post reported Friday.
This romancing of the Commanders, the second by Virginia since the 1990s, should be viewed with skepticism if only as a business venture. Pro sports teams are notorious for severing ties to communities, especially if a sweeter, publicly financed deal comes along. Richmond’s getting a bitter taste of this with the Commanders’ anticipated plan to end its summer training camp in the city, which annually stroked a check to the team for $500,000 to practice at a facility paid for with $10 million in loans.
Fiscal discipline — under Democrats and Republicans, liberals and Republicans — is another feature of the Virginia brand.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or [email protected] Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond and 89.1 FM in Roanoke, and in Norfolk on WHRV, 89.5 FM.