Explainer: Critical race theory, and why it matters now in Charlotte and North Carolina

Explainer: Critical race theory, and why it matters now in Charlotte and North Carolina

Photo: Andy Weber/Axios

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Race is the topic of the summer again, but this time it’s not playing out in demonstrations in the street but in the halls of state legislatures.

Critical race theory is this moment’s culture war, and North Carolina’s GOP-led General Assembly is one of several considering legislation to ban the teaching of it in schools.

But what is it? And why does it stir up emotions? And why else does it matter here?

Definition: In its most basic form the theory examines the relationship between public policy and racial justice. Its framework was developed in the 1970s by legal scholars, Axios’ race and justice reporter Russell Contreras writes. And it outlines how white supremacy maintains power through the law and other legal systems.

  • Critical race theorists dismiss the notion that racism stems from acts of individuals, saying instead that it is ingrained in our society and comes from how the nation formed.
  • CRT is in the same arena as studying systemic racism. But the term sparks a lot more outrage, which is one reason it’s being used.

Why it matters: In Charlotte schools and elsewhere, it’s become a fight over how to teach our children American history, and how much to emphasize that today’s racial disparities are linked to systemic racism.

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  • A North Carolina student today might learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and maybe even the Greensboro Four, but not about the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 that undeniably destroyed a generation of Black success.
  • They’re not learning about how some of the first forms of police in America were created to hunt down enslaved people who ran away, and certainly not making connections to how that has hung over policing and the justice system through the decades.

The state of play: Politicians who want these lessons and their present-day connections out of the classroom have riled up constituents by saying CRT is akin to Marxism, and that movement toward teaching it is a ploy to liberalize their children.

Yes, but: Willie Griffin, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, tells us he’s concerned about politicians directing any and all conversation about race toward the legal scholars’ theory. He says some are incorrectly conflating the teaching of African American history and its present-day impacts with critical race theory, which in actuality is rarely taught on the K-12 level.

Dorothy Counts Harding photo

Dot Counts-Scoggins was just 15 years old when she integrated Harding High School in 1957. Her picture wound up on the front page of the New York Times. (Courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

The big picture: The rhetoric has some white parents conjuring up visions of elementary school children being shamed for their ancestors’ role in slavery.

  • In a meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia, this week one parent told the school board, “I will fight to the bitter end … if you teach my children that they are racist just because they are white.”
  • Matthew Nielsen, founder of the Education Freedom Institute, wrote in an essay this week that critical race theory teaches that “racism cannot ever truly be solved. … This belief creates a truly dangerous situation. Children are being taught that they live in a society that is riddled with racism and hate.”

    Many educators and historians argue that it’s not racism and hate but honesty. And it’s past time, they say, to acknowledge the links between generations — especially in a state like North Carolina, where many current students have grandparents and great-grandparents who weren’t permitted to vote or attend integrated schools.

    Between the lines: Axios’ national politics editor Margaret Talev wrote last week that Republicans see race and racism as central to their political strategy for 2022.

    Why does it work, though? Well, an Axios-Ipsos poll on race relations last month shows a massive gulf between how Republicans and Democrats view race — a 66-point gap on whether the U.S. must continue making changes to give Black Americans equal rights to white Americans.

    • There’s a 48-point gap on whether the events of the past year led to a realization there’s still a lot of racism in the U.S. — and a 49-point gap on whether the protests were good for society, Talev writes.

    Why it matters (in Charlotte and everywhere): The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder has pushed us to examine the ways systemic racism continues to affect people of color. The root of these impacts lies in history lessons most of us never got.

    NAACP uptown protest June 2 2020

    A young boy holds up a sign during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020. Photo: Andy Weber/Axios

    What’s happening here: So much. There are no shortage of headlines regarding critical race theory in North Carolina.

    • The State Board of Education passed new social studies standards in February. These standards are meant to bring more diverse perspectives to lessons. But phrases like “systemic racism” were first changed to “racism” before the new standards passed. [Go deeper]
      • The N.C. House voted to delay implementation of the standards this week.
    • Nikole Hannah-Jones — UNC grad and founder of the 1619 Project, which reframes American history around the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans — was denied tenure at her alma mater in May.
    • Union County Public Schools parents argued over critical race theory in a board meeting earlier this month. WBTV reported that one speaker at the meeting called the theory a “tool of present-day Marxists that is used to cause suspicion, division and victimhood in order to achieve their end goal of completely decimating our country.”

    And the big one: North Carolina’s Senate will soon take up a bill that passed the House last month called “Ensuring Dignity & Nondiscrimination in Schools.”

    It says that teachers and school systems can’t “promote” that one race or sex is superior to another, or that any individual is inherently racist based on his or her race, and that no student should learn that U.S. system of meritocracy “is racist or sexist, or was created by members of a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex.”

    What’s next: Senate leader Phil Berger’s office told Axios in a statement that he considers it a problem any time kids are being taught that one race or sex is superior to another, or that they’re responsible for things that happened before they were born.

    • But he added, “Is HB324 the right solution? I don’t know, it’s something we’ll have to talk about. I don’t like making it illegal to teach a certain doctrine, as wrong as that doctrine may be, while saying the reason for that ban is freedom of thought. That strikes me as a contradiction. Maybe it’s the only way, maybe not. We’ll have to talk about it.”

    Backstory: Discussions about whose history gets told in the classroom are nothing new, especially in North Carolina.

    In the 80 years from about 1889 to 1969, several generations of public school students in the South were taught about the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” It was explicit Confederate propaganda that said, among other things, that slavery wasn’t a driving force behind the Civil War because enslaved people were cared for.

    After the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, when white supremacists violently overthrew predominantly Black leadership in that city, they described the event as a “race riot” in lessons throughout North Carolina. In fact, one of the leaders of the coup, Alfred Waddell, along with his wife, went into public schools to teach kids of the heroism of Confederate generals.

    • Public schools still don’t teach the full scope of what happened in Wilmington or how it trickles down to today.
    Wilmington 1898

    Wilmington coup, North Carolina, 1898. Photo: by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

    Here locally, students as recently as those in the 2000s didn’t learn of local civil rights leaders who lived in the same city: Dorothy Counts, Harvey Gantt, Charles Jones, Reginald Hawkins, J.A. DeLaine, James Ferguson, Julius Chambers.

    • And if they haven’t learned about them, they certainly haven’t learned about Joe McNeely and Willie McDaniel, Mecklenburg’s two lynching victims documented at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala.

    Over the past 10 years, as movements for social justice have grown in the wake of police killings of Black people, school systems nationwide have considered their role in systemic racism, and how to teach a more well-rounded version of slavery to school-aged children.

    Now, by placing any lesson under the umbrella of critical race theory and banning it, some wonder how it’s possible to teach these events truthfully.

    • “You can talk about slavery but you cannot talk about who’s responsible for it. You can talk about the removal and extermination of Native Americans, but you cannot talk about who’s responsible for it,” Contreras, our race and justice reporter, said on a recent edition of Axios Today. “But who is responsible for it? Aliens? Or was it us?”

      One more local headline: Last week, WBT published a nearly 3,000-word investigation that looked into the alleged teaching of critical race theory at Ardrey Kell, and how teachers and parents are upset over being made to participate it.

      Ardrey Kell has had several high-profile incidents regarding race in recent years.

      • In the fall of 2017, a group of Ardrey Kell students were kicked out of a football game for showing up drunk and high and chanting at a Black middle school student, “Black boy, you better watch your back.”
      • Before a pivotal March 2019 state basketball semifinal, a white Ardrey Kell player used the n-word in a snapchat message about West Charlotte’s players, and called where they play “the hood.”
      • In January 2020, a white Ardrey Kell athlete sent her Black teammate a message comparing her to a monkey.
      • Six months after that, the school’s principal was reassigned after pressure mounted over his use of the term “colored folks” in a staff meeting.

      Yet in the WBT story, none of the parents, teachers or politicians who express concerns over critical race theory mentions those incidents.

      The bottom line: Omitting even very-recent history of Black experiences with racism only confirms many of the reasons people have been fighting for the past decade to incorporate more diverse perspectives on history.

      • How it’s taught and at what age, though, will continue to be the big debate.

      Paige’s thought bubble: “Alternate facts” live on. Republicans and Democrats are working from two completely different sets of information. And the battle over CRT shows how those differences translate to historical study.

      • History lessons don’t have nearly as much value if they don’t make present-day connections. The winner of the CRT battle will determine those connections and as a result impact policy and large scale changes. There’s a lot at stake.

      Michael’s thought bubble: Schools, as ever, will only teach kids so much. The rest falls on parents and community. My wife grew up in Charlotte and attended CMS schools and never learned of Dorothy Counts, the 15-year-old who walked through a wall of white people who spit on her and tossed pebbles at her as she integrated Charlotte’s schools in 1957. A few weeks ago, Dorothy held our son, a white boy, on her lap.

      • Regardless what the schools or lawmakers do, we’ll teach him that the people who did those things to her share his skin color, and hope he’ll use that information to make this a better place for the next generation.

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