Republicans defend bill as promoting equality, while Democrats forecast chilling impact on honest classroom discussions
Rep. Ken Fontenot, a Wilson County Republican, vigorously defended House Bill 187 this week, contending that the bill restricting how educators teach about race, gender and sexuality, would prevent educators from teaching racially divisive doctrines.
Fontenot, who is Black, noted that HB 187, which is innocuously titled “Equality in Education” would prevent North Carolina educators from teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT).
CRT is an academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. It emerged in the legal academy in the 1980s as an offshoot of critical legal studies.
Educators say CRT is not taught in K-12 schools.
Critics of the academic exercise fear educators will use it to teach young, impressionable students that America and white people are inherently and irredeemably racist.
“It [Critical Race Theory] largely brings out a one-way racism, and that is white to Black,” Fontenot said. “It does not acknowledge Black to white racism, Black to Asian racism, for instance. In the Asian hate crimes that we’ve seen in the last five years, they have been largely carried out by African Americans.”
The false narrative Fontenot shared about Black hate crimes against Asians was perpetuated during the pandemic after Black offenders committed several high-profiled attacks against elderly Asians.
Janelle Wong, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, challenged the perception that hate crimes against Asians are mostly committed by Blacks after those attacks received national media attention.
In 2021, Wong released a credible analysis based on crime statistics and academic studies, that revealed that more than three-quarters of offenders of anti-Asian hate crimes and other such incidents before and during the pandemic have been white.
Fontenot, a conservative Baptist minister and former Marine made his comments during a meeting this week of the House Committee on K-12 Education.
The committee advanced an amended “committee substitute” of House Bill 187 on a voice vote following robust, partisan debate.
The committee offered a broad preview for what is shaping up to be a fierce battle over HB 187. Republicans staked out positions in favor of the GOP-backed bill while Democrats offered opposing views.
“If we do our jobs right, we’re not just legislating for today or next week or next month, we’re legislating for many, many, many years to come, one would like to thing for an infinity,” said Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican and co-chair of the committee.
Torbett said today’s students and those in the future would be protected by HB 187.
“Who knows what comes in the future,” Torbett said. “Who knows what group will rise or come into position to try to come in and indoctrinate our children. We’ve seen it in history hundreds of time.”
Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat, said that confronting hard truths about America’s racial past will make students uncomfortable, but that that is to be expected an okay.
Parents upset about what’s taught in civic and history classes often share stories about young white children who, after learning hard truths about American racism, return from school stung by the revelation that, historically, the nation has been imperfect in its treatment of Blacks and other people of color.
Morey noted that Democrats and Republicans came together in 2021 to pass House Bill 69 requiring Holocaust education in public middle schools and high schools.
“It [HB 69] talks about Holocaust education, we learn about the dangers of what can happen when hate goes unchallenged,” Morey said. “That made people feel uncomfortable if they have to learn about the atrocities that happen when they learn about the Holocaust but so too is our history with race and it is still unresolved.”
She said HB 187 will have a “chilling effect” on teachers because of the ambiguity of what can or cannot be taught or discussed about the nation’s past.
“Especially with a 30-day notice requirement about outside speakers, outside materials that must be put in detail on [school websites],” Morey said.
Public schools would be required to notify the NC Department of Public Instruction and to make information available on the school’s website at least 30 days in advance if the schools contracts with, hire or invite speakers, consultants or diversity trainers to campus under HB 187.
Uncomfortable topics promote robust discussions that allow students to see both sides of tough issues, Morey said.
“That includes slavery and that includes why women on the basis of sex were denied the right to vote, the 911 attacks, war, all of these are uncomfortable and that’s how we learn about good and evil,” Morey said.
Torbett said HB 187 doesn’t change what history standards can be taught.
“If it’s currently incorporated into the standards that are being taught, then there’s no way that it can be removed,” Torbett said.
As Policy Watch previously reported, HB 187 has much of the same language as House Bill 324, which was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2021. It would, for example, 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 are responsible for the sins of their forefathers.
The bill would also prevent educators from teaching that an “individual, solely by virtue of` his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.
Republicans have enough voted in the Senate to override a veto. They are a vote short of being able to do so in the House.
North Carolina must have a school system that does not divide and indoctrinate students, Torbett said.
“At the end of the day, we should all be able to agree that no student, not teacher, no parent, no school employee, no one should ever be made to feel inferior solely because of the color of their skin, their gender, national origin, race, religion, disability, familial status, especially in our schools where learning for our young should be fun and exciting,” Torbett said.
This story was written by Greg Childress, education reporter at North Carolina Policy Watch, where this story first appeared.