As the nation marked a century since the Tulsa, Okla., massacre that saw a white mob destroy a Black community, the final debate among Democrats seeking to become Virginia’s next governor included a spotlight on racial equity.
The debate was the final clash among the five candidates ahead of the June 8 Democratic primary. The winner will face GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin in November, a pivotal election that will serve as a referendum on Democratic control in an increasingly blue state.
News coverage of the Tulsa anniversary has focused on how rarely the massacre is included in history studies. On Tuesday night, moderator Janet Roach, a journalist with WVEC TV 13 in Norfolk, asked the candidates “how they would ensure that the history of all people” is taught in Virginia public schools.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, where summer protests prompted the removal of several Confederate monuments, said she supported expanding the state’s history curriculum but also modifying the history taught in “public spaces.”
McClellan said she would make sure “that in our public spaces we are building monuments that tell the complete story.”
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in response to the question: “I want a curriculum that reflects who we are and where we’ve come from, I think that’s always very important.” McAuliffe then quickly pivoted to job preparedness, saying he would ensure Virginia children are learning “computational digital competency” to be competitive in the workforce of the future.
McAuliffe then said it was a “falsehood” and a “conspiracy” that he supported eliminating the Fourth of July from the state’s public school curriculum, pushing back on recent statements by Youngkin, the Republican nominee.
Youngkin’s statements refer to an ongoing recommendation from Gov. Ralph Northam’s commission to study the role of African American history in education, which Youngkin has criticized. McAuliffe also opposes the specific recommendation regarding the Fourth of July.
Virginia’s history standards say students should be taught as “essential knowledge” that “People in Virginia’s communities are united as Americans by common principles and traditions, such as celebrating Independence Day (Fourth of July) and pledging allegiance to the flag.”
In light of public debate about the significance of Independence Day for African Americans, who would be enslaved for about 90 years beyond 1776, Northam’s commission recommended that they take out the references to the Fourth of July and the pledge from that specific section.
Northam created the commission in the aftermath of his blackface scandal.
Youngkin has opposed the teaching of “critical race theory,” or the idea that racism permeates society systemically, in state public schools, calling it “divisive.”
Jennifer Carroll Foy, a former delegate from Prince William, said she learned about the Tulsa massacre thanks to her education at a historically Black institution, Virginia State University, where she earned a master’s degree.
“I can tell you that, while it’s important to educate people about our history, it’s not enough. We need intentional, anti-racist policies here in Virginia,” Carroll Foy said. She said she would focus on ending “mass incarceration” and closing the “racial wealth gap.”
Carroll Foy, who also received a B.A. from the Virginia Military Institute, was specifically asked about a report published Tuesday asserting that the school “has sustained systems that disadvantage minority and female cadets.”
Carroll Foy said she was “dismayed and disheartened” by the report, but added she is working with leaders at VMI on policies to improve diversity, safety and quality at the school.
Del. Lee Carter of Manassas, who identifies as a socialist, said the nation needs to have a “real reckoning” related to historic violence against Black communities by white supremacist groups and political leaders. Carter said he supports reparations for Black Americans, saying he would direct 100% of the state’s revenues from legal marijuana sales to “reparations for Black and Indigenous Virginians.”
Legal marijuana sales in Virginia are expected to begin in 2024.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax said reforming the way history is taught in schools is important, but emphasized that children are taught racial injustice “by the structures that are in place that bear the markings of racial oppression and injustice.”
He pointed to “dilapidated schools” serving children of color and the disparate rates of incarceration among Black Virginians.
“These are the monuments that have to be taken down — that’s the education that people get every day,” Fairfax said.
Asked whether the state needs further police reform, which Democrats took up during a special session last summer, all candidates agreed, offering similar answers on the need to diversify police forces and expand accountability. Carter has continued to stand out by rejecting further pay increases and training dollars for law enforcement.
The final question of the night focused on recent comments by Vice President Kamala Harris, who said there are stark differences in how Americans of different races experience the U.S.
Carroll Foy said she would lean on her “lived experiences” to “uplift our communities in a real way.” McClellan said she would ensure “the perspectives of Black Americans, Black women are heard and brought not just to the table, but the table is brought out into those communities.”
Carter said “economic power is the base of justice” and that he would focus on economic attainment. McAuliffe said, “We have a racist system when we have unequal schools” and proposed boosting education funding.
Fairfax closed the final debate in the Virginia Democratic primary by pointing out that as Democrats promote diversity, three of the five candidates seeking the governorship are Black. None has a clear path to victory like McAuliffe, whom polls show ahead and who has been endorsed by Virginia’s most prominent leaders, like Northam.
“We promote diversity. I think it’s very important and should be said that we have three African American candidates here for governor,” Fairfax said. “I think that when African Americans are shut out of opportunities repeatedly, it sends a signal to people about what our system truly values, and who truly has the opportunity to succeed in our society.”