GOP turns U.S. House hearing on extremism toward minorities into ‘defund the police’ debate

From book banning to changing COVID recommendations, to toxic PFAS in a NC river: The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. Book banning battles hit North Carolina schools

Conservatives target works dealing with race and LGBTQ themes

Parents of sixth graders in a gifted language-arts class at Marvin Ridge Middle School received an email from their children’s teacher last month warning them that a book selected for the class’s unit on African American literature would at times be “uncomfortable.”

The teacher at the Union County school, Cason Treharn, was confident, however, that her academically advanced students were mature enough to handle Melba Pattillo Beals’s autobiographical account of the Little Rock Nine’s integration of Central High School in Arkansas in 1957.

Beals was one of nine Black students who stared down angry mobs of white racists and segregationists to attend the previously all-white school. [Read more…]

2. Winston-Salem fertilizer fire reveals regulatory loopholes, spurs hard questions about building and workplace safety

 

Owners of the Weaver Fertilizer plant in Winston-Salem failed to submit a required chemical inventory to the NC Department of Public Safety in 2020, a key piece of information for state and local emergency officials — and a symptom of the lack of oversight of facilities nationwide that handle ammonium nitrate.

Nearly 600 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire at the Weaver plant on Jan. 31 and burned for four days. The risk of explosion was so great that Winston-Salem officials asked people to evacuate within a mile radius, temporarily displacing 6,000 residents. Residents are now allowed back into their homes, although on Feb. 6, the ruins were still smoldering.

Whether Weaver Fertilizer is also required to file an emergency response plan hinges on that inventory, according to Keith Acree, public information officer with the NC Department of Public Safety. Without the chemical inventory, “it’s unknown if an emergency response plan is required,” Acree wrote in an email. [Read more…]

3. Contact tracing, staying home no longer required for K-12 students, staff exposed to COVID-19

Individual contract tracing is no longer recommended for K-12 schools and students and staff members are no longer required to stay home after a COVID-19 exposure unless they experience symptoms or test positive for the disease, according to an update to the state’s StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit.

The new rules go into effect Feb. 21, according to a press release posted on the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) website.

Keeping students in the classroom is a top priority, State Health Secretary Kody Kinsley said in a statement. [Read more….]

4. Pandemic pitfalls, widening inequality threaten NC’s ambitious 2030 higher-education goal.

Three years ago, North Carolina established a goal of having two million adults with a post-secondary degree or high-quality credential by 2030. This week, NC State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues convened leading educators, policymakers, and local leaders to discuss how North Carolina is doing in reaching that benchmark.

Rebecca Tippett, director for Carolina Demography, said before the pandemic 1.2 million adults (age 25-44) in the state held an associate’s degree or higher. Roughly 204,000 held a certificate or credential.

But over the last two years, the state has seen a disruption in its post-secondary pipeline.

“When you look at the share of DPI graduates who say they intend to continue their education, that share has decreased 4.3 percent since pre-pandemic,” said Tippett.[Read more…]

5. When it comes to gerrymandering, there simply must be a limit

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11.Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

 

Black women in the U.S. House push for Supreme Court pick with a civil rights track record

Carolyn Coleman, civil rights trailblazer and Guilford County Commissioner, dies at 79

Carolyn Q. Coleman, a trailblazing civil rights activist and Guilford County commissioner, died late Wednesday. She was 79.

Carolyn Coleman

Coleman represented East Greensboro and Pleasant Garden on the board for nearly 20 years and was the first Black woman to chair the board. As a child she lived through racial segregation in Savannah, Georgia and was among the first three students arrested in sit-in protests in that city. Those experiences informed her work as an activist and elected official for the rest of her life, which included nearly 30 years on the national staff of the NAACP and stints as secretary to the NAACP National Board of Directors and vice president of the North Carolina State NAACP.

Coleman’s continuing work was recently recognized by the North Carolina Association of Black County Officials, which presented her its Frederick Douglass Award for her work with Guilford County’s Feeding the Communities program. That program provided more than 8,000 boxes of food to families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic between December of 2020 and July of 2021.

I worked with Coleman for several years when I covered the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, Greensboro City Council and North Carolina General Assembly for Greensboro’s daily newspaper, the News & Record.

As a young reporter assigned to cover my first county commissioners meeting, Coleman called me over to her spot on the dais before it got started.

“Mr. Killian,” she said. “I hope you won’t quote only the white commissioners like other reporters do.”

Now, this would have been difficult to do even if I were so inclined. At the time Melvin “Skip” Alston, a virtual quote-machine, was chair of the board. Coleman and Bruce Davis, two other Black commissioners, were also very vocal and quotable.

But this is what is known in the biz as “throwing an elbow.” She was putting the new reporter on notice, letting me know I was dealing with someone who would read my stories closely, would be on the lookout for any racial bias, and would not be a bit shy about talking about it.

In my experience, Coleman never dealt with any reporter or outlet by freezing them out, even if she didn’t like what she read. She would call you up to discuss a story, ask why you wrote something a certain way, make sure her voice — and the voice of those she represented — was reflected.

As a young reporter, working with her made me better at my job. It forced me to think more carefully about my work, how I did it, who read it, why they read it, why every word mattered. Over my years at the daily paper she would call me up or pull me aside when she didn’t like a story, when she did, when she thought there was something I should know, occasionally when she just wanted to gossip.

In my time covering the commissioners in Guilford County, I watched the board shift from a liberal Democratic majority to a conservative Republican one. Coleman was the same commissioner in both circumstances. She was also the same fiery, funny and relentless woman whether she was acting as a Guilford County commissioner, in her work with the NAACP or in advocacy of her alma mater, N.C. A&T.

In 2010, I interviewed Coleman after she was part of a protest in Raleigh that resulted in more than a dozen arrests. Read more

Kansas senator and nephew of famed author Alex Haley: Why hide our nation’s historical ‘Roots?’

Kansas Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, is the nephew of Alex Haley, author of the book “Roots.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Forty-five years ago this month, the televised miniseries “Roots,” based on a book written by Alex Haley, uncle of Kansas State Senator David Haley (D-Kansas City), premiered. The series reintroduced this nation to a tortured history it has tried to forget.

Few people in America have a more interesting vantage point on critical race theory — or just race — than Sen. Haley and his family.

“Roots,” which depicted the Haley family’s direct lineage, remains one of the most-watched programs in network broadcast history. It traces the journey of the family’s ancestor, Kunta Kinte, from capture in West Africa, his harsh transportation across the Atlantic and sale into a lifetime of American slavery. It beamed countless barbarities experienced by people whose lives were so lived because of their race into millions of homes.

Sen. Haley said through this lens, he has viewed the sometimes hysterical debate about critical race theory as a marketing torch igniting fears in a particular voting bloc. Purveyors of these tactics know they work. Americans rarely disappoint racial fear peddlers.

Sen. Haley said he chooses to remember, however, how our country watched his family history unfold over those eight nights. Perhaps for the first time in 100 years, Americans began wrestling with the hidden-away horrors of dividing a society by color. This wasn’t simply his family’s story, but our national story: America’s true history.

“We need this unifying spirit now,” Sen. Haley said. “We’re losing our sense of empathy as a nation.”

“Roots” by Alex Haley

Deep learning often happens in discomfort. We heal only after fully acknowledging our history and addressing its legacy. But no one supporting this crusade against honesty in education will address just how our students will be able to study Kansas history.

Sen. Haley had important questions about the classroom repercussions of dodging discussions about America’s racial past. He wondered, for example, if prohibitions against racial content would mean teachers couldn’t discuss slavery.

“Without slavery, what does Kansas as a ‘free state’ even mean?” Sen. Haley asked.

He asked if students could read “The Learning Tree,” Gordon Parks’ epic work, and discuss the violent racism that drove him from Fort Scott and kept him estranged from the state until late in his life?

And what about literary icon Langston Hughes, who lived in Lawrence? What does the Harlem Renaissance or “New Negro Movement” mean without racial discussions?

Could students discuss John Brown and “Bleeding Kansas?” You know, the guy immortalized in a painting inside the Capitol. The one with the rifle and the Bible and the blazing eyes. Are we supposed to just walk by the mural and pretend we don’t know who he is?

Sen. Haley also questioned whether the people concerned about CRT would cancel recently departed Bob Dole.

“Sen. Dole knew race mattered,” Sen. Haley said. “We know this because of his support for Section 8(A) provisions, which set aside a portion of federal contracts for minority (and later women) business development.”

“I also have to wonder if ‘Roots’ itself could even be taught or viewed in classrooms,” he said.

“Roots” delivered transformative content into American homes. It transformed Sen. Haley, too. He’d just entered Morehouse College, and in a week, he “went from just another freshman to Kunta Kinte’s descendant.”

It also connected past to present. Black Americans endured and continue to endure disparities in median income, household wealth, life expectancy and more.

White Americans saw this, too, but they winced and looked away.

Some now propose the historical version of don’t ask, don’t tell, regarding our racial past. It’s a tacit admission that what Black Americans have suffered is so objectionable, it would demand immediate justice. The truth is so resounding, it can never be uttered.

Given this history, it is understandable, Sen. Haley said, that “Roots” stood a whisker away from the title “Before This Anger.” His Uncle Alex, however, wanted “Roots” to speak to the collective pride of Black Americans at how they’d survived such barbarity.

This fear of any racial discussion feels craven. Americans are supposed to face and overcome challenges, not hide from them. But that is what opponents of CRT propose. Deflect Native American history, hide Asian contributions and ignore our Latinx past. Deny any and all antecedent truths.

Many races and cultures helped build this great country.

Sen. Haley rightly asks if we want to send our students into an incredibly diverse society unaware of much of America’s history. Aspects of our history are ugly, but our beauty emerges from struggles against such ugliness.

We must choose.

We can continue filtering the past, picking and choosing through the grimy lens of incomplete history, or live up to America’s greatest aspirations of honesty and truth.

Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum and a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission, and a contributor to the Kansas Reflector, which first published this essay.