It is much easier to find discussions of critical race theory in the world of right-wing media and political activism than in Buncombe County’s public school classrooms.
Yet CRT, a set of ideas about the ways race influences society, got plenty of attention at a recent county school board meeting, figuring prominently in criticism, mostly from conservatives, of public education.
“You’re teaching racism in our schools,” Black Mountain resident Pauline Orban told the Buncombe County Board of Education June 3. She was one of 13 speakers at the meeting who opposed CRT and voiced worries about schools’ handling of racial issues.
But officials at both the county and Asheville City school systems say they do not explicitly teach CRT. Instead, they say educators try to teach students to make their own judgments about the roles race has played in American history and occupies in American society today.
“It is not my job or any other teacher’s job to tell students … what their judgments, beliefs, opinions, perceptions, positions and prejudices are or should be,” says Brian Gonzales, who teaches civics and economics at Erwin High School.
And Reid Chapman, an instructor in the education department at UNC Asheville, frequently visits Western North Carolina classrooms through his work certifying UNCA students to teach social studies in grades 6-12. “I have never heard the term critical race theory in a classroom,” he says about those visits. “Frankly, I think the term critical race theory has been weaponized for the culture wars right now,”
From ideas to argument
CRT began in the 1970s among legal scholars as a view of how racial issues help structure the law and social institutions. The approach has expanded into other academic disciplines, including education, political science and sociology.
Adherents suggest that racism affects people of color regularly and provides material and psychological benefits to whites. Some proponents say racism guides individuals’ thoughts without their awareness, a concept known as implicit bias, and permeates many institutions that outwardly purport to be colorblind. Other tenets include the ideas that race is a cultural and social construct and that colorblind standards only remedy the most obvious examples of discrimination.
The question of how these ideas may shape what kids learn in school has in a short time become as controversial as the ideas themselves. A September 2020 executive order by former Republican President Donald Trump banning certain types of diversity training in federal government, at federal contractors and for recipients of federal funds — since revoked by Democratic President Joe Biden — helped boost the issue’s visibility. Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group, reported in June that mentions of the phrase “critical race theory” on conservative Fox News had jumped from almost none in June 2020 to more than 500 in May 2021.
The N.C. General Assembly is one of several Republican-led state legislatures that have passed or are considering bills this year to add restrictions on how schools teach about race. House Bill 324, whose co-sponsors include Republican WNC representatives Mike Clampitt and Mark Pless, passed the House in May along party lines, but not by a wide enough margin to withstand a possible gubernatorial veto. Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger introduced a proposed replacement bill July 14 that contains a longer list of views that schools cannot promote — such as that “A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist” — and says schools must give 30 days’ notice in some cases if listed concepts are to be discussed.
And the state Board of Education only narrowly adopted new social studies curriculum standards in February following a debate over how they deal with issues around race and discrimination. State legislators are considering delaying implementation of at least some of the standards until the 2022-23 school year, citing concerns that teachers have not enough time to prepare for a new course on personal finance.
It is difficult to know to what extent the concerns about local schools and race that Buncombe residents raised at the June 3 school board meeting stem from happenings in the county, as opposed to reporting about CRT in a national context. None of the commenters cited any examples of CRT being taught in county schools or described specific shortcomings in what schools teach about race.
The most common issues raised by those in the group of about 60 were opposition to requiring students to wear masks and complaints that a smaller group had not been allowed to speak at the board’s May 6 meeting. (There was a dispute then over the board’s public comment rules, which had been modified due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) Many who spoke said they home-school or, like Jay Pfeil of Black Mountain, don’t have school-age children.
“If I had kids, I would not be sending them to school because of what’s being taught,” Pfeil told the board. “The critical race theory teaches people that they’re bad. You’re either an oppressor or a victim.”
Xpress was able to reach four of the 13 commenters on CRT after the June 3 meeting. Only one, Vickie Cook of Barnardsville, claimed specific knowledge of CRT being taught in local schools, but her example did not clearly establish that assertion. She said she had seen a “very racist” photo in one of her grandchildren’s textbooks but could not remember what the photo showed or give any details.
One organizer of the group, Tamara Parker of Arden, is a member of the Buncombe County Republican Party Executive Committee and attended a Jan. 6 rally in Washington that led to an invasion of the Capitol. (Parker says she did not enter the building.) But she emphasized that at least one or two of those who came to the June 3 meeting were Democrats, including David Hurley, who is running to replace Quentin Miller as Buncombe County sheriff in 2022. (Hurley voted in the Republican primary in March 2020, meaning he was either a Republican or unaffiliated at that time.)
Other commenters said either during or after the school board meeting that they are simply worried that CRT may come to local schools.
“I hope it’s not being taught,” Hillary Brown of Black Mountain, who home-schools, said in an interview. She said she was worried by hearing that some local middle students regularly watched CNN in class — “CNN does use a lot of the race-baiting narrative,” she said — but couldn’t say whether that’s an indication CRT is prevalent locally.
And Tara West, a professional mediator who spoke June 3, wrote in response to questions from Xpress, “I can’t speak to what’s currently happening in Buncombe County schools.” However, she was concerned that new state standards appear to require teaching of CRT concepts. She describes herself as politically moderate and says she does not have children in local public schools.
Members of the group who had not been allowed to speak in May filed a bizarre document with the county Sheriff’s Office saying that school board members and other officials involved in the dispute over public comment must resign within three days and that failure to respond would be an admission of treason. It says anyone who “suppresses” the document agrees to pay $250,000 in gold bullion to be divided among U.S. citizens in Buncombe County.
“This is not a legal document” and has no effect, Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Aaron Sarver said.
Questions or answers?
The CRT debate touches on questions like to what extent is racism baked into U.S. laws and institutions, if incidents like the murder of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd by a white police officer result from a few racist outliers or systemic problems, and how much does the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws affect society today.
Some local educators say teachers and students should and do discuss these questions in class. But teachers expect students to develop their own answers, not respond in accordance with CRT or any other theory.
“Our goal is that the kids … become critical thinkers,” says Eric Grant, the county schools’ head of curriculum for social studies for grades 6-12. “We’re going to ask students to come up with their own opinions about things.”
Students may ask what a teacher’s opinion is. Gonzales, the Erwin teacher, and Grant, who spent 15 years in the classroom before taking his current job, say they handle that situation in similar ways.
“I always smile and provide the exact same answer for the past 16 years: ‘It doesn’t matter what I think, it matters what you think,’” Gonzales says.
Asheville City Board of Education Chair James Carter provided a statement noting that he spoke with the school system officials responsible for curriculum. “I have been told that we do not explicitly teach critical race theory,” he wrote. “Please know that our staff craft lesson plans to promote a culture of acceptance, understanding and achievement for all students and families.”
A comprehensive examination of what students in local schools learn about racial issues would require monitoring hundreds of classes and consulting dozens of online learning plans or textbooks. That was beyond the scope of this story; however, Xpress did find one use of the phrase “critical race theory” in local history and social studies textbooks.
The 24 words are part of a lengthy timeline of educational developments included in a book used for a “Pathways2Teaching/Introduction to Socially Just Education” class taught to roughly 15 students per year at Asheville High School. The context does not promote CRT, and the phrase does not appear in the book’s index. The Colorado-based program that developed the template for the course lists CRT as part of the program’s “theoretical framework.”
Rules from Raleigh
Grant says state standards play a crucial role in determining what teachers teach when it comes to race. “Critical race theory is not in our standard,” he explains. “We’ll teach the history that our standards ask us to teach.”
That won’t change with the new standards, he says, adding that they “have been written to ask students to do more of the thinking.”
A comparison between the new language for high school classes on U.S. history and founding principles and the previous standards, adopted in 2010, does not show a huge increase in references to race. The subject comes up in fewer than half of the objectives listed in either the 2010 and 2021 standards and the country’s founding principles and often is one of only several factors related to an objective.
The new standards have somewhat more pointed language and could force students to grapple more with questions of racial discrimination in the country’s past and present. Grant says they say teachers must “pay attention to underrepresented voices more than the old standards” require.
One standard directs students to “compare how some groups in American society have benefited from economic policies while other groups have systematically been denied the same benefits.” West, the Buncombe County commenter, says that language would “seem to require that students be taught ideas” stemming from CRT.
However, the standard doesn’t specify whether differences have occurred only in the past or in the present. It also does not say whether the groups in question are races or classes, genders, sexual orientations or people in different occupations.
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican and member of the state Board of Education, called the standards “divisive” when the board adopted them in February. “Conservative voices have been pushed from education at every turn,” he said.
He has objected to language that says students should be able to “explain how individual values and societal norms contribute to institutional discrimination and the marginalization of minority groups.”
James Ford, an educational consultant and state board member, responded during the state board discussion that there’s nothing wrong with making students think about racial issues.
“The flawless, exceptionalist characterization of our country is well represented in our education. It has been historically,” the former state teacher of the year said. “However, telling other people’s stories requires us to think critically about that.”
Chapman, the UNCA instructor, admits that teaching about race is difficult and is sometimes bungled. He cites “well-intentioned simulations” of slavery or discrimination in elementary school classrooms elsewhere that have garnered headlines. But that doesn’t mean race should be ignored or that legislators should impose restrictions on classroom discussion.
“I don’t see any place for limiting those conversations within a freedom-loving democracy,” he says.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 23, to more accurately reflect the type of bills that have passed or are being considered by Republican-led state legislatures.