‘Teach our history’: Students, faculty protest Youngkin racial literacy course reviews

Protestors march around Capitol Square on April 6 in response to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s request to view syllabi for courses fulfilling VCU’s potential racial literacy core curriculum requirement. Photo by Andrew Kerley.

Andrew Kerley, Audience Editor

VCU’s NAACP chapter was joined by University of Richmond and Henrico chapters and legislators representing Richmond on Saturday, April 6, to “say no to Governor Youngkin’s interference in our history and education,” their poster reads.

Youngkin’s secretary of education Aimee Guidera requested in February to view syllabi for 11  courses that fulfill VCU’s repeatedly delayed racial literacy core curriculum requirements, a move faculty called “unprecedented,” according to a previous report by Capital News Service.

If the requirement is implemented, every student will need to take a course focusing on systematic racism, diversity, equity and inclusion. Two racial literacy courses are already being taught, but are not required: CSIJ 200: Introduction to Race and Racism in the United States and AMST 216: Reading Race.

Youngkin’s spokesperson Christian Martinez said the administration took notice of the issue after hearing concerns from parents, students and members of the Board of Visitors. He called the curriculum mandate a “thinly veiled attempt to incorporate the progressive left’s groupthink on Virginia’s students,” in a statement released to several news organizations.

The fate of the racial literacy requirement is unclear. The courses are currently undergoing an approval process that won’t be finalized until August, according to the provost. The courses will meet the number of faculty needed to teach them in order to be implemented.

The majority of the VCU BOV will be Youngkin appointees by August. The Board approves faculty appointments, tenure decisions and curriculum changes. They also make recommendations to retain “academic quality,” according to their bylaws.

Students and faculty marched from the office of the provost — which complied with Youngkin’s requests — to the Virginia Executive Mansion chanting, “No erasure, no disguise! Teach the truth, open eyes!” and “Black books matter!” Students held signs, one read “Teach our history” and another “Forget Fotis, not racial literacy.”

Ana Edwards, an African American studies professor teaching one of the not-yet-required racial literacy courses, marched alongside students down Franklin Street. She said Provost Fotis Sotiropolous’ complacency with Youngkin’s intimidation shows a lack of commitment to the requirement.

“For many people, the purpose of higher education remains serving the status quo,” Edwards said. “Every generation of you that comes along is challenging that.”

Higher education is not just about training to get a job, but about “opening portals to power,” Edwards said.

“When we stand here, and we say ‘forget Fotis, not racial literacy’ and we talk about Governor Youngkin trying to keep back two-thirds of our history, demanding democracy for all, where is our academic freedom?” Edwards said.

Anesia Lawson, a third-year political science student and vice president of NAACP at VCU, said the racial literacy courses are vital for students’ understanding of the racist systems deeply ingrained into America.

“They don’t want us to learn about this,” Lawson said. “With that education, comes the downfall of all of the other systems that oppress people in America.”

Shawn Utsey, the chair of VCU’s African American Studies Department, said VCU is exhibiting a pattern, between stealing Black bodies for dissection in the 1800s, building a parking lot on top of an African burying ground and stealing Bruce Tucker’s heart to conduct the world’s first open heart transplant — all of which received backlash from students and community members.

“We have to hold VCU accountable because they are benefitting from the diversity of the student body by saying ‘we are a minority serving institution,’ and that avails them to other kinds of resources,” Utsey said.

Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, Sen. Lamont Bagby, Del. Rae Cousins and Del. Michael Jones, all Democrats representing Richmond, joined students in a rally after the march.

In a speech under the Capitol Square Bell Tower, Bagby decried Youngkin’s “intimidation” on Virginia’s institutions.

Before requesting to view VCU course syllabi, Youngkin requested to view syllabi for George Mason University’s Just Societies requirement, according to a previous report by Capital News Service.

Youngkin’s chief diversity officer Martin Brown declared diversity, equity and inclusion to be “dead” in a speech at Virginia Military Institute in April 2023. Youngkin rejected claims from the U.S. Department of Education in October 2023 that Virginia’s historically Black universities were underfunded by $277 million for more than three decades, according to a report by Virginia Mercury.

When it comes to K-12, Youngkin signed an executive order on his first day in office to end the use of “critical race theory.” He also attempted — and failed — to implement new history standards that downplayed the Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing effects of slavery, according to a report by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“At a time where he has to negotiate with Black folk, and Louise Lucas, and Don Scott and Luke Torian, he is going to the institutions and challenging our history being taught in our schools,” Bagby said in his speech.

Bagby assured the crowd that the Black Caucus would push back against Youngkin’s pressure, and encouraged BOV members to support the requirement.

“We’re protecting that history for the future,” Bagby said.

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