State Board of Education takes on racism in response to civil unrest

State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis (Left) and SBE members James Ford (Right)

Racism is a “social pandemic” in conflict with the nation’s founding principle that “all are created equal,” State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis said Wednesday.

Davis made his comments in response to ongoing civil unrest in American cities over the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man killed by a police officer.

The chilling video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee planted lethally on Floyd’s neck has sparked outrage across the nation and throughout the world.

Chauvin was initially arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The murder charge was upgraded to second-degree on Wednesday.

Three other officers involved in the incident were also charged Wednesday. Officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng each face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder, as well as aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

The fact that the three were not immediately charged in Floyd’s death has been a flashpoint for protesters nationwide who have taken to the streets for more than a week to voice anger over Floyd’s death and the deaths of myriad unarmed blacks killed by police.

Davis said the nation has suffered under the disease of systemic racism for far too long.

“Like COVID-19, which is seemingly invisible, which can be carried, transmitted and received unknowingly, inequity and racism are in the air we breathe,” Davis said. “And like COVID-19, we must first mitigate its spread and ultimately vaccinate ourselves and remove it from our society.”

Ridding the nation of racism will take more than a show of empathy toward those who suffer under its crushing weight, Davis added.

“It will take intentional, determined, relentless commitment and work from all of us, especially those of us who are white, in positions of power and leadership, to end the social pandemic,” he said.

Wednesday’s meeting was an emotional one for the board, which has made racial equity the center piece of its five-year strategic plan.

SBE member James Ford said the board must root out racism and inequity wherever it is found.

“We are duty-bound, not to personally absolve ourselves of allegations of racism, but to deliberately be anti-racists in our approach to our work, and that is to cleanse this institution of every vestige of white supremacy that exists,” Ford said.

Ford also said those “put off” by the destruction of property during protests over Floyd’s death are missing the point.

“I understand some of that recoiling, but speaking as a black person, to a people who once themselves were considered property, you’ve got to understand how that prioritization sounds to us,” Ford said.

He said we now have an opportunity to improve schools, build a better state and nation.

“We have to reconcile our foundational flaws before we move forward,” Ford said.

Matthew Bristow-Smith, the 2019 Principal of the Year from Edgecombe County who serves as an SBE adviser, said the state’s public schools can either perpetuate inequity and racism or “ameliorate and fix” systems that marginalize some children.

“While we’ve been looking this week at what’s been happening around the world, we must also look within and we must also look at us,” said Bristow-Smith, principal of Edgecombe Early College High School “We’ve got to hold a critical lens, Mr. Chairman [Davis], not only to our society and to our schools but to ourselves as individuals. This can’t be a Black movement. It’s got to be a human movement.”

Bristow-Smith sobbed after mentioning Floyd’s name and also while calling the names ofBblack male SBE members and advisers.

Mariah Morris, reigning North Carolina Teacher of the Year, asked teachers to be conscious of bias that impedes the academic, social and emotional development of students.

“Let’s work to make sure we are not promoting any form of institutional or personal racism in our classrooms,” said Morris, now the innovation and special projects coordinator for Moore County Schools.

Tabari Wallace, the 2018 Principal of the Year and SBE adviser, noted that self-actualization— the act of achieving one’s full potential — sets atop Abraham Maslow’s five-tier model of human needs.

People of color are often prevented from reaching their full potential because they have difficulty meeting the basic needs defined in Maslow’s model due to systemic racism, Wallace said. The needs include food and water, safety, love and esteem, he said.

“How can you ever become self-actualized without obtaining all of those building blocks?” asked Wallace, the principal of West Craven High School.

SBE member J.B. Buxton reminded the board that it held its annual planning meeting on the N.C. A&T University campus where in 1960 four students set a powerful example by leading sit-ins to desegregate the lunch counter at the Woolworth department store.

“I do believe we stand on the shoulders of those students from A&T who were big enough to meet that moment in 1960, and now we have that challenge ourselves,” Buxton said.

SBE vice Chairman Alan Duncan offered this apology to board members and advisers of color:

“To my colleagues of color on this board and to the advisers on this board, I am sorry for the suffering that you and your brothers have endured over the lifetime of our country. I miss being with you, especially at a time like this and very much look forward to embracing you literally when we’re able to reunite in person.”

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