Recent controversy over a North Carolina bill reflects a larger national debate over how the country’s classrooms should reckon with the past.
North Carolina House Bill 324—which passed the state House and Senate along party lines and was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in September—has been derided by critics as an anti-critical race theory bill.
Critical race theory—the idea that racism is embedded in legal systems and policy—has become the latest hot-button topic in America’s ongoing political culture wars and has been an important deciding factor in close political races. It has mostly been taught in higher education settings rather than in K-12 schools.
The language of HB 324 called for “ensuring dignity and nondiscrimination in schools.” It would have prohibited public schools from teaching that one race or sex is superior or inferior, that members of a certain race or sex bear responsibility for past wrongs committed and that the concept of American meritocracy has racist and sexist underpinnings.
The Republican-sponsored bill had passed the North Carolina House by a 61-41 vote and the Senate by a 25-17 vote. Both of these votes fell along party lines, with Democrats united in opposition.
After months of intense debate in the North Carolina General Assembly, Governor Roy Cooper vetoed HB 324 Sept. 10.
Paul Scott, who leads the Durham-based Black Messiah Movement, called the bill a “rebel call … [against] accused socialist indoctrination by those who don’t know Karl Marx from Groucho Marx.”
State Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Democrat who represents Durham, said that the bill’s purpose was to further a political goal.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with educating young people,” she said.
Murdock said that the legislative process was one-sided, with the bill’s Republican advocates shutting the Democratic caucus out of deliberations over the bill.
The Chronicle reached out to state Reps. Jason Saine, John A. Torbett, James L. Boles, Jr and Larry Yarborough (R), all Republicans, who are listed as the bill’s primary sponsors on the North Carolina General Assembly website.
Saine, who represents Lincoln County, distanced himself from HB 324.
“My original bill was for charter school reopening,” Saine wrote in an email. He explained that the language of a bill can be replaced once it goes to committee. “Rep. John Torbett … added the [anti-Critical Race Theory] language and took out the charter school language.”
Scott credited grassroots activists in the Black community for pressuring Cooper to veto HB 324. Even though these activists were shut out of the official conversation, the activists organized and mobilized to help defeat this bill, Scott said.
HB 324 was one of several similar bills introduced in state legislatures across the country. In at least seven states so far, bills banning critical race theory have been signed into law.
“These politicians accused teachers of indoctrination, but they've been brainwashed themselves by right wing think tanks to think that so-called critical race theory is a bad idea,” he said.
Torbett, Boles and Yarborough did not immediately respond to comment.
Despite Cooper’s veto, the fight over critical race theory is far from over in North Carolina. After protests during the summer, Johnston County passed a curriculum revision banning its public schools from teaching critical race theory in October. Following their lead, the Carteret County School Board approved a similar ban on teaching critical race theory “as accepted fact.”
Murdock said that many schools and districts have reprimanded or suspended teachers for teaching racially inclusive history.
“What’s really concerning about that is that teachers will start to censor themselves,” Murdock said. “They'll be afraid of teaching the full history, they’ll be afraid to talk about structural racism and systemic racism—barriers that persist to this day.”
Scott emphasized the importance of teaching children about race.
“Kids need to know their history. A lot of our young people in the African-American community have been robbed of self-esteem, Scott said.
Murdock cited the Wilmington Massacre as an example of why antiracist education is necessary in our state. She said that students, especially in the South, need to be taught things that may make them uncomfortable.
“It needs to be told because it is part of the American story. It's how we got here,” Murdock said.
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Anisha Reddy is a Trinity junior and a senior editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.