RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina Republicans advanced legislation on Wednesday that defines how teachers can discuss certain concepts about race and racism inside the classroom.
GOP Senate leader Phil Berger said his chamber is taking action as Republicans across the country seek to counter their understanding of “critical race theory,” a framework legal scholars developed in the 1970s and 1980s that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions, maintaining the dominance of white people in society.
The latest version of the North Carolina bill would prevent teachers from compelling students to personally adopt any ideas from a list of 13 beliefs, even though though they cannot identify a single case of this happening inside the state’s classrooms, which serve about 1.5 million K-12 public school students.
“We don’t want to indoctrinate folks in what I think is the core of critical race theory, which is that race is determinative of whether or not someone is going to be successful, that race is determinative of all matter of things that happen in society and that past discrimination justifies current discrimination,” Berger told The Associated Press in an interview before unveiling the updated education measure.
Architects of the theory accuse Republicans of hijacking a national conversation on race and inaccurately representing their ideas. The theory does not argue that people are inherently racist and its early adopters do not say they are advocating for a new form of discrimination to remedy past injustices. Instead, they view race as something that is culturally invented. They say the GOP is simply appealing to its largely white base of supporters ahead of next year’s elections.
“This is a 2022 strategy to weaponize white insecurity, to mobilize ideas that have been mobilized again and again throughout history, using a concept or set of ideas that they can convince people is the new boogeyman,” Kimberlé Crenshaw, an early proponent of the theory, said earlier this year.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will likely veto any bill that reaches him, and Republicans would almost assuredly lack the votes they’d need for an override.
“Let’s stop injecting calculated, conspiracy-laden politics into public education and start making real investments that ensure a great teacher in every classroom and a great principal in every school,” Cooper’s statement said. “After this pandemic and the loss of learning that has occurred, let’s have a bipartisan focus of time, energy and investment on making sure our children can read, learn math and get a quality, accurate education.”
Berger also announced Wednesday that his party will seek a constitutional amendment that would go before voters in March 2022 aimed at “affirming our commitment to the principles of the Civil Rights Act.”
“Critical race theory” emerged in response to a lack of progress toward racial equality that legal scholars observed years after the landmark 1964 legislation.
Republicans backing the bill being discussed in an education committee Wednesday afternoon have thus far identified three counties — Durham, Mecklenburg and Wake — where teachers have either attended or could soon attend events involving ideas that Republicans worry could trickle down to students.
The theory caught the attention of former President Donald Trump last year after a conservative activist appeared on Fox News and discussed racial bias trainings within the federal government that he found objectionable. Trump subsequently issued an executive order barring federal contractors from conducting racial sensitivity trainings and teaching any of nine “divisive concepts” he outlined.
Though a federal judge blocked Trump’s directive and President Joe Biden rescinded the diversity training ban, Republican-controlled legislatures have adopted language from Trump’s executive order in bills largely targeting schools.
As of Monday, 26 states have considered legislation or other steps to limit how race and racism can be taught, according to an analysis from Education Week.
Berger, who previously expressed concern with the bill the House passed along party lines in May, said it now clarifies that it’s OK for teachers to discuss these ideas involving race, as long as they don’t “promote” them by compelling students, teachers or other school workers to personally adopt the beliefs.
His revisions to House Bill 324 added five prohibited concepts, including any claim that the U.S. government should be violently overthrown or that all Americans are not created equal.
School districts would have to provide instruction materials promoting any of the 13 concepts to members of the public upon request. People also could get detailed information about speakers, consultants or diversity trainers hired by a district who discussed or previously advocated for such concepts.
The new language is unlikely to assuage fears among Democrats, education groups and racial justice advocates that the bill would reduce education about the lingering of effects of slavery and discrimination, stifle teachers’ ability to lead open conversations and make aspiring educators question whether they want to enter the workforce.
“It is a bill that is intended to put a chilling effect on anti-racist teaching and to make it hard to talk about those uncomfortable and difficult but much-needed conversations around racism and sexism in our classrooms,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
Berger believes the concerns are overblown.
“If they’re not indoctrinating students, then there should be no concern about the bill as drafted because all the bill prohibits is that indoctrination. So if it’s not happening, they shouldn’t be up in arms about the existence of the bill,” Berger said.
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Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.