Rep. John Torbett introduced a bill last week that would make North Carolina the 19th state to ban and/or restrict how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.
Nearly a third of North Carolina public school students are Black, and yet North Carolina Republicans last week introduced a bill that would limit how educators could teach Black history.
State Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston County) on Thursday filed House Bill 187, a proposal that mirrors one Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed in 2021 that targeted “Critical Race Theory” (CRT), an academic framework used to describe the concepts of structural racism and racism embedded in laws and policies—both historical and present—that have produced racial inequality.
CRT is not taught in K-12 schools, but that fact doesn’t seem to matter to right-wing activists, who’ve distorted the idea of CRT into a catch-all term to justify attacks on public education and anything involving the discussion of race, diversity, and equity.
Republicans insist their efforts are intended to prevent so-called indoctrination in schools and protect parents’ rights. But the bills they’ve introduced in North Carolina and across the country are written using such vague language that teachers, racial justice advocates, and many Democrats have argued they are an effort to censor discussion about systemic racism and the honest teaching of American history and race.
Torbett’s bill does not include the words “Critical Race Theory,” and instead says public schools can’t “promote” certain concepts, including the ideas that:
- “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex”
- “an individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive”
- “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex”
- “an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex”
- “the United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.”
This seems innocuous and reasonable, which opponents of anti-CRT bills contend is intentional. But the term “promote” is vaguely defined as “compelling students, teachers, administrators, or other school employees to affirm or profess belief in the concepts described.”
In other words, teachers could potentially be muzzled from even discussing the concepts of race, racism, gender differences, systemic racism, or slavery.
For example: If a teacher tries to foster discussion about slavery or topics like the abhorrent three-fifths compromise and a student professes the belief that systemic racism has existed in America, or accurately states that the law once said white people were superior to Black people, that teacher could theoretically then be accused of violating the law.
It would also be against the law to “promote” the concept that “All Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
While the notion that “All Americans are created equal” is commendable, the text this idea is inspired by, the Declaration of Independence, only stated that “All men are created equal.” The text says nothing about women.
Under Torbett’s bill, the mere act of teaching that historical fact could, in theory, be prohibited.
And for nearly a century after the country was founded, all Americans were not equal. Millions of Black Americans suffered from the bondages of slavery until after the Civil War and then suffered brutal repression during the Jim Crow era. Most Black Americans were not even able to vote until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, only 45 years after women were guaranteed the right to vote.
Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, called HB 187 an “anti-truth bill” that tries “to limit honest and sometimes uncomfortable teaching of history.”
“Instead of focusing on supporting public schools with resources & making plans to alleviate the educator shortage, they have brought this back,” Walker Kelly tweeted Thursday. “NC students & families should have the freedom to learn truth. This copycat legislation has no place in North Carolina.”
Renee Sekel, a Cary mom who works for the NC chapter of Red Wine & Blue, a group that seeks to mobilize suburban moms to get involved in politics, also opposes the bill.
“I think most parents—and most kids—want our schools to teach accurate and complete history. I trust that our students are smart enough and strong enough to understand a full history of the United States, and don’t need extremists in the Legislature to whitewash it for them,” Sekel told Cardinal & Pine. I’d rather they spent their time on something helpful, like funding schools adequately while we have a budget surplus.”
The bill does purport to have some guardrails and includes exceptions for “speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution” and certain educational materials, such as those that include “the impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history” and the “the impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region.”
It’s confusing, and meant to be so. In states where anti-CRT laws have passed, teachers have expressed uncertainty over what’s allowed and self-censored to the point of cutting lessons short so as to avoid risking punishment.
The anti-CRT panic first emerged after the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020 and that fall’s presidential election, which saw near-record turnout among Black voters. Since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or advanced other efforts targeting CRT or limiting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an analysis from Education Week. Thus far, 18 states have imposed such bans and restrictions through legislation or other measures.
Torbett’s proposal would also require public schools to inform the state Department of Public Instruction and make public at least 30 days prior any instances where schools plan to teach about any of the concepts above in curricula, reading lists, or other educational or professional settings, or if they hire or contract with any speakers or consultants who discuss those concepts.
Democrats in the legislature are widely expected to vote against Torbett’s bill.
“This legislation represents overreach and micromanaging from the North Carolina General Assembly to the school system, as well as a massive distrust of our state’s teachers and the university system that trained them,” said former teacher and current state Rep. Lindsey Prather (D-Buncombe County). “There are so many identifiable problems that North Carolina communities are facing right now that need to be addressed. This legislation does not address any of those problems and instead further attempts to sow division between schools and families.”
Even if most Democrats and Gov. Cooper oppose the bill, Republicans have enough votes in the Senate to override his veto and are just one vote short in the House. In short, it would take just one Democrat to vote for the bill for it to become law and override Cooper’s veto.
Republican House Speaker Tim Moore supports the bill. As the News & Observer reported, he acknowledged the need for a “very frank and candid and honest discussion about the history of our state, the history of our country” and the “bad, sad chapters in our nation’s history” where “people were discriminated against, people were enslaved.”
But when asked what he thought about introducing a bill that limits how race is taught during Black History Month, Moore responded that “anyone who cares at all about the racial history of this country, and who is concerned about making sure there is racial justice, ought to be against some of this extreme curriculum that’s being pushed out there, that is only trying to further divide students, and trying to further divide people.”
He and other supporters of anti-CRT bills do not seem to believe their efforts could be in any way seen as divisive or extreme.
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