RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina Republicans are advancing legislation to limit how teachers can discuss certain racial concepts inside the classroom, according to the state’s most powerful senator.
GOP Senate leader Phil Berger will move forward with legislation as Republicans across the country seek to counter their understanding of “ critical race theory,” a framework legal scholars developed in 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.
Berger and other Republicans say they are working to prevent pupils from being indoctrinated in school, though they cannot identify a single case of such indoctrination happening inside the classrooms that 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 this week before unveiling an updated version of the education bill on Wednesday.
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 proponents 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 is likely to veto any final bill that reaches his desk. Republicans would almost assuredly lack the Democratic votes they’d need in both the House and Senate to override a veto.
Republicans backing the proposal have thus far identified three counties — Durham, Mecklenburg and Wake — where groups of teachers have either attended or could soon attend events where they are presented with ideas GOP members link to the theory. Republicans worry views espoused in those trainings could trickle down to students.
“Critical race 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 the measure will advance through his chamber with some changes. The tweaks clarify that it’s OK for teachers to discuss ideas that Republicans have claimed are central to the theory, so long as they do not “promote” them by compelling students, teachers or other school workers to personally adopt the beliefs.
His revisions to House Bill 324 add five prohibited concepts, for a total of 13, including views that the U.S. government should be violently overthrown and that all Americans are not created equal.
Berger’s bill allows members of the public to have school districts provide them with any instruction materials promoting the 13 concepts. 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.