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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

“Virginia must renew its commitment to teaching our children the value of freedom of thought and diversity of ideas,” declared Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin in his first executive order on January 15. He even included conservatives’ favorite cherry-picked MLK quote: “Only then will we realize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that our children ‘will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.'”

But how do Virginia Republicans renew a commitment to teaching children the value of freedom of thought and diversity of ideas? By trying to ban ideas they dislike. No more “divisive concepts, like Critical Race Theory and its progeny.” Or rather no more “inherently divisive concepts.” The adverb is apparently important. It appears eighteen times in Executive Order Number One. To his schizophrenic credit though, Youngkin does at least acknowledge the following:

“We must equip our teachers to teach our students the entirety of our history – both good and bad. From the horrors of American slavery and segregation, and our country’s treatment of Native Americans, to the triumph of America’s Greatest Generation against the Nazi Empire, the heroic efforts of Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, and our country’s defeat of the Soviet Union and the ills of Communism, we must provide our students with the facts and context necessary to understand these important events.”

Agreed.

In fact, I agree with the vast majority of the executive order, because the vast majority of the executive order bans things that already do not exist. The adjective “divisive” is subjective, so the final section provides a much-needed definition of “inherently divisive concepts,” which for the purpose of the order “means advancing any ideas in violation of Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Title IV ended segregation in public schools, and Title VI states:

“No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

So Youngkin has come out against segregation and that no student should be prohibited from attending public school. And he has done this by redundantly banning ideas that would violate a law passed six decades ago—whether those ideas actually exist or not. Such theoretical ideas include but are “not limited” to a list of seven provided in the order:  

  • (i) one race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith is inherently superior to another race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith;
  • (ii) an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith, is racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously,
  • (iii) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith,
  • (iv) members of one race, ethnicity, sex or faith cannot and should not attempt to treat others as individuals without respect to race, sex or faith,
  • (v) an individual’s moral character is inherently determined by his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith,
  • (vi) an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, ethnicity, sex or faith,
  • (vii) meritocracy or traits, such as a hard work ethic, are racist or sexist or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.

The first and fifth include the above-mentioned adverb “inherently,” which means naturally or necessarily. To believe that someone is “inherently superior” is to believe they were born that way. The same is true with any “inherently determined” moral character—with the exception of a moral character determined by a person’s “faith,” since people are not born with religious beliefs. Though some religious beliefs do oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (many Christians believed the Bible justified slavery), membership in a religion does not necessarily require such beliefs.

So I agree with Youngkin’s (i) and (v).

The second and sixth ideas do not include “inherently” but instead an equivalent phrase: “by virtue of.” Racism and sexism are not inheritable traits, so no one can be racist or sexist simply by being born of any race, skin color, ethnicity, or sex. Faith repeats the same categorical problem, but as long as your faith does not require you to adopt racist or sexist beliefs, you are not racist or sexist “by virtue of” your faith. Whether such racist or sexist qualities would be “consciously or subconsciously” is moot since none necessarily exist “by virtue of” anything listed. Similarly, “by virtue of” being born into a group does not make an individual responsible “for actions committed in the past by other members of the same” group. Responsibility does not follow simply from the existence of historical events, but would have to include some additional contemporary element and so would not be “by virtue of” belonging to a group but by something more.

So I agree with Youngkin’s (ii) and (vi) too.

The third and fourth ideas are uncontroversial too. Of course no one should be discriminated against because of their race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith—that’s the whole point of the Civil Rights Act. I’ll be honest and admit that the phrasing of (iv) confuses me, but I think it’s arguing that members of a group should treat people not in their group as individuals and not just as non-members. If I’m reading that correctly, then absolutely.

That leaves (vii). To the very best of my knowledge, “meritocracy” and “hard work ethic” were not created “to oppress” anyone. Whether after being created they later resulted in some kind of oppression is a separate question not addressed in Executive Order Number One.

So Youngkin and I agree on seven out of seven of his anti-Civil Rights concepts. Of course these “inherently divisive concepts” don’t belong in schools. According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they don’t belong anywhere. And the rest of Executive Order Number One details how exactly they should be prohibited, ended, and removed from policies, guidelines, websites, best practices, and instruction.

Meanwhile, so-called “Critical Race Theory” goes undefined and is mentioned only once and only in the opening “Importance of the Initiative” section before the actual “Directive.” According to Youngkin:

“Inherently divisive concepts, like Critical Race Theory and its progeny, instruct students to only view life through the lens of race and presumes that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are victims.”

I’d be happy to debate any of that, but Executive Order Number One makes it moot because that sentence is not part of the “pursuant to the authority vested in me as the Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth, and pursuant to Article V of the Constitution and the laws of Virginia, I hereby order” section. They’re just words.

Since the legally binding “Directive” section does not mention “Critical Race Theory” and applies only to things made illegal sixty years ago, it’s just words too.

Bottom line: Executive Order Number One is inherently meaningless.

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