NC Capitol

NC Capitol

NC House divided over how, whether to teach America's racist past

Posted May 12, 2021 4:21 p.m. EDT
Updated May 12, 2021 8:33 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina Republicans pushed a measure through the state House on Wednesday that would limit "critical race theory" and other discussions of America's racist past in public schools.

Black Democrats and the House's lone Native American, called the bill anti-history, anti-education and, in the words of Rep. Kandie Smith, D-Pitt, tantamount "to a book burning." They said it would hamstring teachers, leaving them confused about the rules and fearful to lead frank discussions on race and the sadder epochs of American history.

“We’re trying to circumvent history is what we’re doing here," said Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, a member of the Lumbee tribe. “It’s wrong, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s mean-spirited.”

Republicans kept quiet on the bill for the most part during floor debate, letting bill sponsor Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, make their case.

“This bill does not change what history can and cannot be taught," Torbett said. "It simply prohibits schools from endorsing discriminatory concepts."

House Bill 324 would forbid schools from promoting the idea that any race or sex is inherently superior and from teaching that anyone should feel guilt, discomfort or responsibility for "actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex." It also forbids promoting the idea that the United States is racist or sexist or that it was "created by members of a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex."

The bill is a response to a shifting social studies curriculum in North Carolina and the influence of critical race theory, a point of view that acknowledges the existence of white supremacy and systemic racism and holds that some institutions are inherently racist because they maintain the momentum of racial inequality.

The bill would allow teachers to "state" those concepts, but they'd have to "make clear" that the school system doesn't endorse them. The measure is similar to Republican-backed bills in other states.

The bill didn't exist publicly in North Carolina until Tuesday. It passed the House Wednesday 65-48, with Republicans generally voting for and Democrats against. It moves to the state Senate for more debate.

Democrats said the measure would limit difficult conversations to save white people's feelings, but those conversations are needed.

“If you genuinely believe that the solution will just come by never mentioning racism again, you’re fooling yourself,” Smith said.

Rep. James Gailliard, D-Nash, ticked through racist chapters in American history, from slavery to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision to presidential opinions that Native Americans were "savages," to cases of mortgage lending discrimination revealed by studies published even in recent years.

Twelve million people were brought here as slaves, he said.

"How can our school systems not teach that our nation was founded on oppression?" Gailliard asked.

Torbett spoke twice on the bill.

"To be clear, explicitly clear, this bill does not change in any way what history can and cannot be taught," he said. "It tells our children what we honestly owe them. … What we owe them is that education system that unites and not divides.”

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