Aidan White ’23 is a sociology major at the College. Email Aidan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed within are the author’s own.
Newly inaugurated governor of Virginia Glenn Youngkin used his campaign to stoke the flames of white supremacy. He embraced the support of Donald Trump and said that the slogan Black Lives Matter is “the antithesis of everything that we believe in.” On his first day in office, Youngkin signed an executive order banning “the use of divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory, in public education.” His office has even set up an email address where people can report public school teachers for teaching these vaguely-defined concepts.
His entire political persona is formulated around limiting what educators can teach, especially if they are trying to teach about racism. And on Feb. 11, in the middle of Black History Month, he will be awarded an honorary degree by the College of William and Mary.
How could this happen? After all, College leadership has spent the last year creating a new, progressive image of the College. They worked with consultants to conduct a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion assessment. The Board of Visitors voted to remove the names of certain enslavers and white supremacists from campus buildings (after months of student pressure and organizing). President Rowe even came to student-led Black Lives Matter solidarity marches to show her support. How could an institution that seems so committed to looking progressive invite — and in fact honor — a man so committed to vile, racist policies?
The truth is that this invitation is much more in line with the history of the College than the steps forward that the administration took last year. When the royal charter was signed in 1693, the College of William and Mary came into being as an institution funded by white supremacists and committed to spreading their vision of the world. According to historian Craig Steven Wilder in his book Ebony and Ivy, “the decision to organize a college [in the colony of Virginia] responded to the lingering problems of defending the colony’s expansive borders with Indian nations, regulating a large population of enslaved people, and governing a free population with a history of resisting political and religious authority.” At its inception, the College’s primary mission was to protect the interests of colonialism and white supremacy. Unsurprisingly, the original trustees of the College were made up of “planters and merchants from the colony’s leading landholding and slaveholding families.”
The College continues to rely on such families, as well as honor them. In addition to the renaming of buildings last year, the Board of Visitors changed the name of the Lyon Gardiner Tyler Department of History. As a historian, Tyler was a fierce critic of Abraham Lincoln and published a number of works defending the Confederate States of America, including the 1920 book “The Confederate Catechism” where he argued that enslavers “civilized” the Black people whom they enslaved and were therefore doing a righteous public service. Thank goodness the College decided to sever ties with him! Unfortunately, the department was renamed the Harrison Ruffin Tyler Department of History, honoring Lyon Gardiner Tyler’s son who no doubt inherited some of the wealth his father accumulated as a purveyor of racist thought. In fact, he even donated some of that wealth to the College in 2001.
No wonder the leadership of the College is willing to award Youngkin an honorary degree and treat him as part of our intellectual community. The ideology that he represents is the ideology that this institution was founded to uphold, and the College continues to benefit from it.
Youngkin will receive his honorary degree at the annual Charter Day ceremony, commemorating a document which included the provision that the College’s trustees would receive a penny for every pound of tobacco planted and picked by enslaved Black laborers in Virginia to be traded by English merchants. Youngkin’s presence at the Charter Day ceremony is merely a continuation of the College’s long history of supporting and profiting from racism. It is also a bleak reminder that this institution consistently forces any declared commitment to academic integrity into the backseat, while white supremacists are allowed to drive the car.
Correction: The author blurb on this article was updated to better reflect the author’s current major and campus involvements.