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Breaking down the critical race theory debate in N.C. as bill awaits Senate vote

A student of Frank Porter Graham Elementary school walks from carpool toward the school early in the morning on March 26, 2021. CHCCS have recently reopened in-person instruction, although many children are still learning virtually.

Critical race theory has become the center of debate among legislators nationwide — including in the North Carolina General Assembly.

Republican officials across the country, including in Texas, Iowa and South Carolina, have echoed each other, presenting bills that are mirrored to regulate the teaching of race and racism in public schools.

North Carolina Republicans followed suit in March and introduced House Bill 324, which aimed to manage the public school curriculum on the teaching of race and history. The bill now awaits a vote in the Senate.

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory is a framework centered around the idea that race is a social construct designed to oppress people of color, as opposed to the white supremacist notion that race is a natural, biological distinction between human subgroups.

Erika Wilson is an associate professor of law at UNC who specializes in civil rights and critical race theory. She said law has been used to construct race since the beginning of American history.

For example, the Homestead Act of 1862 — which intended to allow any citizen to apply to own up to 160 acres of government land — outlined benefits by race, Wilson said, in favor of white people. She also said the Great Depression-era New Deal declined to provide benefits to predominantly Black neighborhoods.

The local battle surrounding CRT

J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College, said states like North Carolina only began these efforts once former President Donald Trump signed an executive order in September prohibiting diversity training and critical race theory.

After this order went into effect, many conservative state leaders followed suit, Bitzer explained, which triggered nationwide efforts to minimize the teaching of critical race theory within the realm of education, as seen as in North Carolina.

Another factor in this spreading ideology, Bitzer said, was the fear perpetuated by Trump that white Americans were losing political power due to the changing ethnic and racial makeup of the country.

The second dynamic impacting state discussions of critical race theory is the North Carolina Board of Education decision to edit the social studies curricula in public schools, particularly subjects centered around discrimination, racism and gender identity, Bitzer said.

“Along with those two dynamics, the national and various state Republican Parties and their elected officials are utilizing this issue to continue to fire up their base of voters that they need in the 2022 midterms and beyond,” Bitzer said.

Bitzer also said by using the phrase “critical race theory” with the understanding that many Americans don’t know what it means, these leaders have succeeded to reframe the issue into a continuing culture war battle.

Pushback in the General Assembly

House Bill 324 passed the House of Representatives on May 12, with every Republican approving the legislation and every Democrat voting against it.

“The legislation would not prevent Critical Race Theory or any other concept or materials from being discussed in schools, so long as the public school unit makes clear that it does not sponsor, approve, or endorse such concepts or work,” Speaker of the House Tim Moore said in a press release.

Democrats in the NCGA, however, were opposed to its implementation. James Galliard (D-Nash) said HB324 completely removes any conversation of diversity, equity or inclusion from the public school curriculum, which would only intensify the issue of race in North Carolina and in America.

With a white mother and black father, Gailliard said there was a time when his parents were unable to travel outside of their state since their marriage was declared illegal, and Americans need to know this history.

“It's terrifying to me to think that there could potentially be a generation of young people that will grow up not knowing anything about the real history of our nation,” Gailliard said.

Terry Stoops, the director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, said he does not believe that critical race theory is an appropriate educational framework for children in grades K-12. 

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He said there are more pressing issues within the education system in North Carolina, and legislators should devote more attention to the stagnation in student performance on national assessments of reading and math.

“I don't believe that an identity-based education is a way to ensure that there are high academic standards that all students are expected to meet,” Stoops said. “I feel that critical race theory may be distracting.”

Stoops does not see how critical race theory will lead to improvement in student achievement, which must be the primary goal of public education, he said. He said the legislation is good because it would trigger teachers to think about how best to preserve the dignity of their students in the classroom.

He also said HB324 does not ban the teaching of any topics, and it instead encourages educators to reassess what and how they teach their students.

But Galliard disagreed with this argument.

“It really had nothing to do about curriculum,” Gailliard said. “It really had everything to do about the climate of our society, and it's just a political ship.”

He said this type of legislation has implications on business and ethics since diversity, equity and inclusion drive success in a melting pot such as America.

Where educators stand

Wilson, like Gailliard, said the primary impact of this bill has a chilling effect, and the actions of the legislators have nothing to do with critical race theory. She said they instead are using the theory as a “dog whistle” to outline any historical facts they do not like.

Wilson said in addition to impacting students of color, this bill hurts white children in school by depriving them of critical knowledge they need of their past.

“What happens when you ban that kind of speech is that people see the racial inequalities,” Wilson said. “When we don't allow for speech about how we got here, people begin to presume that those disparities are innate.”

If students are not being taught about the history of racism, young people will be led to believe differences between races are due to merit or intelligence, which furthers stereotypes and builds the social construct, Wilson said.

Brenda Stephens, the vice chairperson of the Orange County Schools Board of Education, said there is confusion and disagreement surrounding critical race theory because some think the ideology discriminates against white people.

She said people tend to fear what they do not understand.

“Senator Thom Tillis has been quoted by saying that CRT has no place in American classrooms. Is that to say that we cannot discuss race in history class? I certainly hope not,” Stephens said.

Hillary MacKenzie, the board chairperson, addressed critical race theory on the local level, saying Orange County Schools seeks to respond to cultural issues through its method and practice of teaching.

She said she sees HB324 as a tactic to intimidate North Carolina teachers from discussing the more difficult aspects of American history, and the legislation is serving as a “political stunt” to slow down racial equity efforts.

“Black Lives Matter today and every day in Orange County Schools and that isn’t contingent on any bill in the NCGA,” MacKenzie said.

MacKenzie also said critical race theory has been misconstrued by legislators as this theory is a college-level area of study that examines systemic oppression in the law. This concept, she said, differs from culturally responsive teaching, which showcases all races and cultures and enables all students to be represented in their schoolwork.

Such culturally responsive teaching, however, is the basis of HB324, which says the following: “Public school units shall not promote the following concepts … the United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.”

What happens next?

Since the bill passed the House of Representatives, it was referred to the Committee on Rules and Operations in the Senate and then re-referred to the Committee on Education/Higher Education.

Due to the Senate Republicans' 28-22 majority, the bill is likely to pass through this body, Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University, said.

Cooper said the bill will be reintroduced, and Gov. Roy Cooper is nearly certain to veto it once it passes the Senate.

After a veto, the legislation would return to the General Assembly, where it would need a three-fifths approval to override the veto — which Chris Cooper said the bill would not have. Though HB 324 is unlikely to become law in North Carolina, the ramifications of the bill will linger in state politics for years to come. 

Chris Cooper said the legislation drew significant attention to critical race theory, and it has become a divisive issue in state and local elections.

Gailliard said this bill reminded him of the Jim Crow era, and he felt as if the clock were being rewound to 70 years ago.

“It was heartbreaking for me to recognize that people that have this level of this degree of hatred, this degree of injustice, within them,” Gailliard said. “But then again, that's why we're here in the General Assembly is to advocate for people that ordinarily would not be advocated for.”

Not just a North Carolina issue

The debate on critical race theory in state government represents the national fight between Republicans and Democrats and the increasingly polarized environment, Bitzer said.

He said both sides are presenting arguments and viewpoints in their frameworks to rally support among their bases. 

Though critical race theory was developed in law schools, Bitzer said many Republicans believe the dynamic is appearing in elementary and secondary education, and they want to fight the blame placed on all white Americans for being inherently racist. 

“But the dilemma becomes, how do you ignore the basic facts and legacy of America’s history when it comes to race and racism?” Bitzer said.

Wilson said this debate among state legislators around the country has already begun to impact her work. 

She was asked to speak at an event in Colorado about critical race theory in the law and was then removed from the program because the organization was no longer concerned about any elements related to CRT, she said, after these discussions picked up around the country.

Wilson said critical race theory is just the first stepping stone as legislators nationwide open up this platform.

“Today, it's critical race theory. Tomorrow it’s something else," she said. "Once you open this door, it becomes a slippery slope. And it really does become an Orwellian nightmare.”

Bills similar to HB324 have been introduced in 26 states, including nearby South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, according to EducationWeek.

Cooper said this pattern reflects the nationalization of state politics as the same issues and, in some cases, even the same language appears in these different state legislations.

“This is the new battleground in partisan warfare,” Cooper said.

@DTHCityState |

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