Can students handle the truth about America’s racial past?

Abby Rogers

House Bill 324, controversial legislation to restrict what students can learn about America’s racial past, was the main attraction Friday at a virtual forum hosted by Public School Forum NC.

But a group of former Wake County high school students stole the show with razor-sharp insights about why North Carolina’s 1.5 million school children must be taught hard truths about the nation’s history.

Abby Rogers graduated last year from Middle Creek High School in Raleigh.  She told attendees that she benefited immensely from an African American literature course and an African American history class while a student at Middle Creek.

“As a white student specifically, taking those classes allowed me to understand perspectives that I otherwise would have never been exposed to,” said Rogers, who will attend UNC Chapel-Hill in the fall. “For me, it was my first time being in a class where I was not a member of the majority.”

Rogers said students across the state could benefit from the lessons she learned in the African American literature and history courses.

If HB 324 is approved, Rogers said it will limit what students can be taught about the nation’s historic injustices and make them less empathetic to the plight of those who continue to suffer as a result of those past wrongs.

HB 324 has garnered lots of support in conservative strongholds across the state. The state’s Republican leaders contend the bill would help to prevent teachers from indoctrinating students with liberal ideology.

The House has approved HB 324. A revised version of the bill has been taken up by a Senate education committee. The Senate version added six banned concepts to the seven approved by the House.

Parents and GOP lawmakers often share stories about white children emotionally damaged after learning the truth about the evils of slavery and Jim Crow laws. The children are left with feelings of guilt and shame, they say.

HB 324 would ban discussion of concepts that would make students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.”

KaLa Keaton, a recent Middle Creek graduate attending Yale University in the fall, wondered why such a bill wasn’t passed years earlier to protect students of color enduring racist remarks made by white classmates.

“When I first read these words [in HB 324], the first thought I had in my head was which students are at the center of this concern,” Keaton said. “We could have already had an HB 324 when I was in elementary school and a classmate screamed that he hated Black people on the playground.”

Keaton listed a series of similar racial incidents she witnessed while attending schools in Wake County. Some of them received substantial media attention. None, however, inspired lawmakers to write a bill to alleviate the discomfort, anguish, or psychological distress students of color experienced, she said.

“It’s been going on for years and years and years,” Keaton said. “Oftentimes students are belittled, ignored and gaslighted into believing that they [racial incidents] are not real issues.”

Keaton said HB 324 would maintain the status quo.

“The status quo is centering white students, white parents and their feelings,” Keaton said. “There’s nothing new. It’s just doubling down on what already occurs in North Carolina’s schools.”

Grear Webb

Grear Webb, a Sanderson High School graduate now attending UNC-Chapel Hill, noted that North Carolina is a diverse state.

“It’s important that we have all of these perspectives and take the histories of all of these people and include them in our daily lives,” Webb said.

State Rep. John Torbett, the Gaston County Republican who sponsored HB 324, attended Friday’s event along with dozens of state and local politicians and educators.

Torbett invited the students to meet with him to discuss the bill and other issues before they head to college. He also urged attendees to read the bill, which he contends allows the “good’ and “bad parts” of history to be taught.

Matt Scialdone, a Middle Creek English teacher, said HB 324 is a solution in search of a problem. The concepts it would prohibit aren’t being taught by North Carolina’s teachers, he said.

Scialdone said that if children of color can experience racism, then white students are strong enough to learn about it.

“If one set of students is having to go through it themselves, another group of students at the very least can have a conversation about it,” Scialdone said. “The concept that discomfort should be removed from the educational process, to me, that is the moment where the most educational growth happens.”

Rodney Pierce, a Nash County Public Schools social studies teacher who served on the committee that drafted the state’s new social studies standards, asked if HB 324 would prohibit him from discussing the 1861 Cornerstone Speech delivered by Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America.

Stephens defended slavery in the speech, using racial rhetoric to paint Blacks as inferior. He also laid out reasons for what he termed a “revolution.”  A few weeks later, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter to start a long and bloody civil war.

“So, when you say concepts that promote one person feeling inferior to another person based upon their race or their gender or things of that nature, then I think that maybe I can’t talk about the Cornerstone speech, maybe I can’t give people the real reason, straight from the horse’s mouth, for the Civil War being fought, for the Confederacy being formed.”

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