RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia’s new Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle-Sears presided over the Senate for the first time on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Earle-Sears, who is the first woman of color to be sworn into a statewide office, made her debut as debates surrounding race and education are coming to a boil.
Lt. Governor Earle-Sears, who was also the first Black Republican, female veteran and legal immigrant woman to serve in the House of Delegates, tends not to dwell on the historic nature of her elections. However, she acknowledged its significance, especially for young women who may see her as a role model, in a one-on-one interview on Monday.
“People who look like me never would have imagined that I could be sitting here second in command of the former Capital of the Confederacy,” Earle-Sears said. “I am the first woman—of whatever color—to be the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia and I think that is what speaks volumes about today being Martin Luther King Jr. Day that we celebrate because this is what he fought for, equality. Not for us to divide ourselves by race.”
Monday wasn’t the first milestone Earle-Sears associates with the civil rights icon.
“I can’t ever escape Martin Luther King Jr. in my life. In Jamaica, it was my job to dust his picture on the wall,” Sears said. “My father came to America just 17 days before he gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
Governor Glenn Youngkin evoked Dr. King’s famous speech in his first executive order, which seeks to ban critical race theory in public education. The order says CRT instructs students to “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.”
“The foundation of our educational system should be built on teaching our students how to think for themselves,” Youngkin’s order reads in part. “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.””
CRT is often described as a college-level theory that examines how racism historically shaped laws and systems that perpetuated the oppression of African Americans. Earle-Sears didn’t directly respond when asked if she personally believes systemic racism is currently a reality in the United States, instead referencing previous comments from Vice President Kamala Harris.
The degree to which CRT is currently taught in K-12 public schools, if at all, is disputed. On the campaign trail, Democrats dismissed the Republican push as a “racist dog whistle.”
“It’s tiresome to respond to them because it is there,” Earle-Sears said in response.
Youngkin’s order generally directs the removal of curriculum, policies and cultural competency training that promotes “inherently divisive concepts,” including CRT.
Asked to respond to concerns that the ban could have a chilling effect on speech and deter educators from addressing uncomfortable truths, Earle-Sears said, “For some people, the truth that we have been progressing is uncomfortable to them because they would prefer to stay mired in the violence of the past and some of the current violence to advance their nefarious agenda. We’re not going there and I’m not teaching my children to go there either. It is time to move forward while acknowledging what we have suffered in the past and acknowledging that it’s quite possible we are going to suffer some more in the future.”
Regardless of those obstacles, Earle-Sears believes education is the gateway to opportunity. It’s why she supports fully funding Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as providing vouchers that would give parents alternatives to a public school education.
Youngkin’s push to expand charter schools in Virginia is already proving controversial. Opponents have raised concerns about quality and the disproportionately high concentration of minority students in existing programs. Others fear an expansion in school choice will further deplete resources from already struggling public schools.
Asked to respond, Earle-Sears said, “If you really want to talk about racism that to me is the real racism. That your child must only attend this zip code school and this one alone. How dare anyone relegate a child to a failing school.”
Earle-Sears may have the opportunity to cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate, which is narrowly controlled by Democrats. As a skeptic of marijuana legalization, an abortion opponent and a staunch second amendment supporter, she could be the deciding factor in some hot policy debates during the 2022 session. We asked her about those topics and more during a previous interview.