North Carolina education leaders are set to finalize social studies curriculum standards, but may not confront the legacy of systemic racism. (Stock image via Getty Images) Nothing right about racism
North Carolina education leaders are set to finalize social studies curriculum standards, but may not confront the legacy of systemic racism. (Stock image via Getty Images)

This North Carolina teacher writes that recent suggestions by state education leaders to downplay the role of systemic racism in our country is wrong. 

Last week, the NC State Board of Education met to discuss social studies curriculum standards, part of a year-long effort to update the social studies standards beyond just saying “diversity” to elevate the experiences of historically oppressed groups.

They’ll meet again today to finalize those standards. 

Last week’s meeting was an hour and a half of “patriotic” pearl clutching and thinking of all issues in terms of a zero-sum game. It should have been a conversation focused on the benefits of incorporating examples of systemic racism to support a commitment to a “more perfect union” – on the eve of Black History month no less.

READ MORE: How History Is Made: After George Floyd, NC Educators Consider a More Inclusive Curriculum

In fact, some of the board members fought against even acknowledging the existence of systemic racism. 

Board member Amy White, a non-profit executive from Garner, labeled curriculum standards set to empower students to learn about our country’s hard truths in history as “anti-American, anti-capitalism and anti-democracy.”

Some of the most contentious discussion in last week’s meeting was prompted by the proposals from State Superintendent Catherine Truitt to cancel the word “systemic” from its attachment to the terms “racism” and “discrimination,” and the word “gender” from the term “identity” in the social studies curriculum standards. 

Superintendent Truitt tried to defend her proposal to remove the word “systemic” by saying “systemic racism indicates that our entire system of government and our constitution, as it is written and has been amended, are racist.” 

She argues that by acknowledging that systemic racism exists, we are by default saying our Constitution is racist.  That’s nonsense. 

And yet these state Board of Education members who are so sure of themselves despite their obvious lack of understanding of the Constitution and the Founders want to tell social studies teachers like me how to teach.

By incorporating lessons on “hard truths” we’re not villifying our country, we’re empowering students to participate in moving our country toward a “more perfect union” – just as the Founders envisioned.

From the Boardroom to the Classroom

Based on the logic demonstrated at last week’s Board meeting, I should not teach my students about the amendments to the Constitution because apparently offering improvements by default makes folks feel too “guilty” about their original imperfections. 

Should I not teach the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery because it would make folks uncomfortable that we acknowledge it existed? 

Should I not teach about the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote because it reminds us of the patriarchal roots of our society?

Saying we need to do things better as we work toward a “more perfect union” is not the same as saying the United States is awful because it’s not perfect.  

Step off the see-saw – it’s neither awful nor perfect. 

As I’ve started a new semester with a new group of students in my Civics and Economics course, I remind them about the difference between feedback and criticism.  Offering suggestions for improvement is not the same as saying they did something terribly, or that they’re a terrible student.  

Saying our country has work to do to continue pursuit of a “more perfect union” is in line with the intent of the Founders, not a betrayal of them.  

Would those same folks leading state education policy suggest that North Carolina’s educators value student pride over academic improvement? 

It seems so-called defenders of American pride could use a reminder that even the Founders didn’t think their document was perfect. That’s why Article 5 describes the amendment process as one way to change the system as we pursue a “more perfect union.”  

They were so open to revisions that they designed a process to make them.  

Esse Quam Videri: Change systems not semantics

It’s ironic that the folks most offended by the terms “systemic” and “gender” in social studies standards don’t take as much issue with the systems in our state that serve as recent examples of discrimination across race and gender. 

Standardized tests measure socioeconomic status better than academic achievement.  Those test results are used for a school grading system to rate schools A-F.  Our state labels communities struggling with poverty but does little to address poverty.

Our state weighs final test scores 80% and but weighs improved academic outcomes only 20% in that calculation instead of 50/50 like many other states.  Apparently, North Carolina’s systemic attempt to diminish credit for improvement is ingrained not only in the Board’s conversation earlier this week, but in the way it chooses to label schools. 

Even the school voucher system supports discrimination by sending public dollars to schools that deny admission to students based on the religious or gender affiliations of students or their families.  

And Republican state lawmakers dropped a bill last Thursday to push for expansion of the discriminatory voucher system when they return to session this week. 

While the voucher program is already overfunded by $85 million, North Carolina’s pre-K program fails to serve over half of students who qualify to attend. In North Carolina, it is easier for a family to qualify for an annual private school voucher than it is to qualify for one year of pre-K in our public school system. That’s despite growing evidence that the best way to improve children’s futures is to offer them a quality early education. 

North Carolina’s schools have waited over two decades for the General Assembly to fulfill its commitment to a “sound basic education” for all students.  The recommended pathways in the court-ordered report refer specifically to initiatives to support students of color in communities who have faced systemic discrimination. How does one fix those systemic shortfalls if one fails to admit systemic racism exists?

The State Superintendent and Board of Education should use their platforms to help dismantle racist systems.  But why should North Carolinians have confidence some of them are up to these tasks if they spend more time debating whether or not systemic racism exists when it’s right under their noses?

The State Board of Education needs the General Assembly to provide funding and policies to improve these systems.  It’s hard to imagine legislative leaders who have racially gerrymandered districts “with surgical precision” or passed a bill targeting the LGBTQ+ community have much interest in fixing systemic inequities in our state.

The most recent attempts to sugarcoat our past and present by denying the existence of systemic racism and discrimination shirks our responsibility as a state to ensure our students understand not only the parts of history we’re proud of, but understand we are still a work in progress as we form a “more perfect union.”

Students are not empowered to engage in this pursuit if the social studies standards address only achievements, and not the ongoing history of our weaknesses and how they can work to help our country and our state move forward to live up to its ideals.  Systemic racism is a glaring weakness.  

It’s worth wondering if policymakers who refuse to acknowledge systemic racism and our country’s continued pursuit of a “more perfect union” are capable of moving our state forward to live up to our ideals.