House approved bill restricting classroom discussions about race moves to Senate

State Rep. Kandie Smith

A controversial bill restricting what North Carolina school children can be taught about America’s racial history was approved by the Republican-led House on Wednesday and is headed to the Senate where it is also likely to receive a favorable hearing.

House Bill 324 is like dozens of bills around the country being pushed by Republican legislatures trying to ensure unflattering parts of the nation’s history are not taught in public schools.

Critical Race Theory, an academic discipline that examines how racism has shaped the nation’s legal and social systems, is also a target of such bills.

In North Carolina, HB 324 would prohibit teachers from promoting concepts that suggest America is racist or that people are inherently racist or sexist. It would also prohibit teaching that whites or anyone else is responsible for the sins of their forefathers.

Critics of the bill believe it’s a response to new social studies standards adopted by the State Board of Education that require diverse views are included when history is taught.

“When I look at a bill like this, I have to question myself, why are we having this bill before us,” said Rep. John Autry, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “I believe it’s a reaction against the new and more inclusive social studies standards the State Board of Education passed.”

Autry said teachers must be trusted to engage students in tough conversations about America’s racial past, which includes slavery, Jim Crow laws and the cruelty heaped upon Native American.

“We’re conflating racial analysis with racism as a way of protecting the sensibility of us white folks,” Autry said.

He said no one is being taught that they are inherently racist in the state’s public schools.

“It’s simply a straw man,” he said.

Rep. James Gailliard, a Democrat from Nash County, called HB 324 an “anti-business” bill, explaining that the bill prohibits schools from employing diversity trainers and consultants.

“These are common practices in business today because businesses recognize that without a conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion that we can’t expand our workforce, it contributes to the bottom line and it helps companies identify their blind spots,” Gailliard said.

HB 324 is also an anti-education bill, he said, because it avoids tough conversations about systemic injustices, the residual impacts of those injustices, the benefits of diversity and the recognition that all people have value.

“This is where we strip our children of the understanding that there are heroes and villains in the world, where we strip our children of the reality that you can turn injustice into justice,” Gailliard said.

Rep. Ashton Wheeler Clemmons, a Guilford County Democrat and educator, said she is bothered to her “core” by HB 324.

The bill would prevent teachers from being truthful when discussing historical or political issues with students, Clemmons said.

She cited an incident during the George W. Bush presidency where a student asked her why there were no women or Black presidents.

“I am worried that bill [HB 324] would prevent me as that teacher in that moment from honestly answering that question,” Wheeler said. “Honestly, a lot of our history makes that true. The facts of our history have led to where we are. Until 1920, only white men could vote. Women could vote in 1920 but then people of color; not until 1965.”

Rep. Kandie Smith, a Pitt County Democrat, said conversations about race are challenging and uncomfortable but necessary.

“This bill spends a lot of time talking about what you can’t do,” Smith said. “There’s an entire list of don’ts in this bill but there is no mention of what we should do.”

She likened the introduction of HB 324 to a “book burning.”

“A small group of enraged individuals are looking to ban an entire concept of thought because it makes them uncomfortable,” Smith said. “The acquisition of knowledge is not a danger to our children but the banning of these ideas for the sake of maintaining the status quo, let’s be clear, that will continue to endanger the lives of Black and Brown children across the state and across this country.”

Rep. Charles Graham, a Robeson County Democrat and member of the Lumbee tribe, said many of his House colleagues were taught that American Indians were savages.

HB 324 would continue to circumvent history and send the wrong message to teachers, Graham said.

“I don’t know what inspired anyone to want to bring this to this body today, but let me say this, it’s wrong and as far as I’m concerned, it’s mean-spirited,” he said. “We need to be teaching about Black culture and what it has meant to this county, about our Native American culture and what it’s meant to this country, our Hispanic culture and what it means to this country.”

No Republicans rose to speak in support of the bill, but it has been endorsed by the House leadership and State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, who said earlier this week that HB 324 encourages students to think freely and to respect differences of opinions.

“Classrooms should be an environment where all points of view are honored,” Truitt said. “There is no room for divisive rhetoric that condones preferential treatment of any one group over another.”

Truitt’s support of the bill comes at a time when the state board has made racial equity the center piece of its five-year strategic plan. It’s unclear whether her endorsement of HB 324 will strain the collegial relationship she’s worked to have with the board.

This year, Republican legislatures across the nation have introduced bills that would restrict educators’ ability to teach about systemic racism, sexism, bias and similar topics.

In Tennessee, the House of Representatives debated a last week that would ban classroom discussions about systemic racism. The state would withhold funding to schools that taught about systemic racism and white privilege under the bill.

The Tennessee House approved the bill along party lines with Republicans voting in favor of it while Democrats opposed it. The Senate, however, declined to accept the legislation.

In Ohio, the legislature is considering a bill that would prohibit “teaching or advocating divisive concepts on race, color, nationality or sex, the Ohio Capital Journal reported.

Republican-led legislatures in Oklahoma, Texas, Idaho and other states have introduced similar bills.

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