Juan Williams is one of the smartest journalists in Washington, DC and a qualified thinker about a range of socioeconomic topics regarding American society. However, his recent article in The Hill titled “’Parents’ Rights’ is Code for White Race Politics” regarding the Virginia gubernatorial election is not one of his better editorials about education.
The thesis of the article is summed up in his last statement: “But this [parents’ rights] movement is not about parents. It is about exciting the far-right base by stirring up racial division.”
Williams is right one about thing — the debate between former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin was not about parents’ rights. It was about a much bigger issue: families.
But Williams is wrong about something else — his proposition that party and race can be inarticulate proxies to explain shifts in political action.
While echoing McAuliffe’s use of the “racist dog whistle” phrase to brand white Virginia parents’ concerns about books, black lives, or school buildings, Williams bypassed a salient point underlying a philosophy of parents’ rights: decision-making authority.
Virginia law authorizes families of all races to exercise their decision-making authority in educational matters and did so long before the 2021 election. Picking a public school rather than a private school is one example, and Virginia is blessed to have some of the best public schools and teachers in America. Seeking accommodations for students with disabilities is another example. Weighing in on curricular matters is, too. So is selection of a neighborhood to purchase or rent a home based on where great schools are located.
It is true that there was a time in Virginia’s history when “parents’ rights” and “freedom of choice” were a rallying cry to maintain Jim Crow schools during the 1950s and 1960s following the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Even before that time, local restrictive covenants legally barred black families from buying a home in certain neighborhoods, and state law prohibited a non-white person from marrying a white person to create a family. However, that was then.
Right now, the parents’ rights activity in Virginia is multi-racial and multi-ethnic. It seeks to empower families, not return us to a separate-but-equal frame of mind.
Nonetheless, Williams echoes McAuliffe’s allegations that white Virginians that publicly announce concerns about books, black lives, or school buildings under the moniker of “parents’ rights” are racists at best. At worse, he insinuates these persons are incapable of deciphering a dog whistle of hate — even if subconsciously they so badly want to.
For sake of argument, let’s say white parents’ concerns about books, black lives, school buildings, or a combination thereof, are fueled by racism. What does this line of reasoning say about Virginia’s black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, multiracial, and non-white immigrant parents who heard the same dog whistle and reached the same conclusion as white parents regarding parents’ rights?
To put it simply, we cannot deem this entire multi-racial group racist. That means this phenomenon is tough and probably not possible to explain through the lens of race alone.
So instead, we as a society look to party affiliation as a proxy for racism. Why? Because certain labels allow us to brand non-white people a coconspirator. Naturally, we call black Republicans in this group an Uncle Tom or Aunt Tina. An ethnically parallel term is applied to other people of color as well.
Certainly, not everyone in the non-white group of parents is a Republican. What about the Democrats of color who heard the dog whistle and supported parents’ rights anyway? This phenomenon is tougher to cope with because they are members of the same political tribe. Therefore, we conveniently concluded that these people are victims of a separate-but-unequal irrationality.
It is worth noting that Williams wrote the article before election day. Now that the results are in, it is worth an assessment of how the theme Williams echoed from McAuliffe played out with voters.
When all is said and done, McAuliffe did not lose the election because of parents’ rights, although his stance on it did not help him. He lost because some white, Toni Morrison-reading, suburban and urban Democratic women and men voted for their children instead of their party. McAuliffe also lost because some working-class families of all races felt that his economic message excluded their families’ needs.
McAuliffe also lost because some black democrats stayed home to protest his decision to insert himself into a gubernatorial race when three black elected Virginia officials were in line to seek their first Democratic nomination for governor, including two qualified black women. In December 2020 when McAuliffe was marketed as the best candidate for black people during a formal announcement for his third run for the Democratic nominee for governor in 12 years, this did not sit well with some of the party’s black voting base that deciphered his decision as code for white race politics. Does this mean McAuliffe is a racist or unsympathetic to black women? Absolutely not. His record proves otherwise. But he likely paid the cost of asserting his privilege into this race.
In the end, Williams’ claim falls apart. Human values and voters’ preference for human agency through the prioritization of decision-making authority around education are more nuanced than his editorial acknowledges.