RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – The role of critical race theory in public schools is one of several issues being discussed on the campaign trail in Virginia’s race for governor. 

The definition of critical race theory has been blurred by political debate, but the basic idea is that America’s racist history is embedded in modern laws that are continuing to disadvantage certain groups.   

On Tuesday, WAVY’s Capital Bureau reporter asked Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin if he thinks systemic racism exists in America and if it should be taught as part of African American history in public schools.

“I agree with Senator Tim Scott who said that America is not racist,” Youngkin said. “There is a political agenda and it’s called critical race theory. It’s being taught in our schools. It’s dividing kids and pitting them against one another and, when I’m governor, we won’t teach it in our schools. We will teach real history, all history, good and bad.” 

The debate has been in focus on Fox News, which recently aired an audio recording of former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe calling the controversy a “right-wing conspiracy” that “is totally made up by Donald Trump and Glenn Youngkin.” 

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Renzo Olivari, a spokesperson for McAuliffe, doubled down on that sentiment in a statement on Tuesday. 

“Since Glenn Youngkin has no education plan, his campaign is focused on Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories and debunked lies about Virginia’s education system,” Olivari said. “As Virginia’s next governor, Terry will raise teacher pay, expand pre-school to every 3 and 4 year old in need, address inequities, and prepare Virginia students for good jobs of the future.” 

Olivari didn’t directly respond when asked if McAuliffe supports incorporating systemic racism into history lessons. 

The conversation comes amid a broader push by the Virginia Department of Education to make African American history more accurate, comprehensive and sensitive. 

It was the focus of a VDOE summit that kicked off on Tuesday morning. 

Addressing the crowd of educators virtually, Gov. Ralph Northam said he appointed a commission in 2019 to review and revamp how African American history is taught. 

The commission found most educators didn’t have any specific training in this area, according to Northam. 

“Our history is complicated and it can be difficult to talk about and to teach but it is vital that our children learn the full and comprehensive story of the past that we all share,” Northam said. Commission on African American History Education makes recommendations for curriculum and development 

In response to the commission’s findings, VDOE Spokesperson Ken Blackstone said in a statement that edits were made to the state’s History and Social Science standards to ensure that students have a full understanding of our nation’s struggle with racism and equality. 

Blackstone said a regularly-scheduled, full review of those standards is currently underway and updates are expected to be considered next year. He said local school divisions are ultimately responsible for developing specific course curriculum in alignment with those standards. 

Northam also detailed a new state law that requires every person seeking initial licensure or renewal of a license from the Board of Education to complete cultural competency training. He said it will help staff understand and interact respectfully with students from different backgrounds.  

Asked about the new requirement on Tuesday, Youngkin said cultural competency training is just code for critical race theory. 

“I absolutely believe we should talk about how to bring people together,” Youngkin said. 

While Northam never specifically used the phrase critical race theory in his remarks on Tuesday, one of the VDOE event’s main speakers emphasized the need for students to understand systemic racism.

During a lengthy presentation, University of Ohio History Professor Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries said,  “We can’t ignore it because race is socially meaningful. It has shaped and continued to shape the contours of our lives. It creates hierarchy. It creates privilege for some and disadvantage for others and it has been that way for the past 600 years.”   

According to Jeffries, history books have too often perpetuated false narratives and “rationalized evil” when it comes to violence against people of color. 

Jeffries said that makes it difficult for people to fully understand current events, like the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.   

“You cannot make sense of the present, particularly as it revolves around race is American society, as it revolves around democracy, as it revolves around the problem of white supremacy, unless you put it into its proper historical context,” he said.