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National reckoning on race runs into resistance from NC conservatives

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Surry County Commissioners (Photo: Screen grab from May 17th meeting)

The recent national rise in social justice activism and the debate over “critical race theory” have struck a nerve in Surry County, a Republican stronghold in the northwestern foothills of North Carolina.

Members of the county’s board of commissioners are outraged that America is undergoing what many others say is a long overdue racial reckoning, much of it brought on by police shootings of unarmed Black citizens.

The five-member panel of middle-aged white men are so put off by the activities of “social justice warriors” and “woke, bigoted Democrats” that it recently directed the county manager to withhold funding from public and private organizations that engage in anything connected to the “social justice, bigoted, left-wing Democrat agenda.”

“I don’t think anyone that receives money from this county; they ought to have to prove to us and document to us that no monies in this county will be spent on sensitivity training or cultural reeducation of their employees,” said Commissioner Eddie Harris, who introduced the proposal at a May 17 board meeting [2].

The directive to County Manager Chris Knopf would include withholding funding from the county’s three school districts. Surry County Schools, Mt. Airy and Elkin city schools risk forfeiting county dollars if they teach critical race theory or engage in other activities embraced by the “enraged woke mob.”

“This [social justice activism] is infiltrating every component of our government,” Harris complained. “It’s infiltrating and affecting from the federal, state and local levels. It’s affecting our public schools in North Carolina, our colleges and universities.”

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Commissioner Eddie Harris

Knopf did not return phone calls from Policy Watch and neither did Terri Mosley, who chairs the Surry County Schools Board of Education.

It’s doubtful the commissioners would withhold funding from the county’s school districts. The threat, however, is a striking reminder of how divided the nation remains on race, and how that schism impacts the actions and decision-making of local policymakers.

Marie Nicholson, vice president of the local chapter of the Surry County NAACP, lives in Mt. Airy. She was not aware of the commissioners’ threat to withhold funding from organizations that engage in social activism until it was brought to her attention by Policy Watch.

“They want to promote a Mayberry [the fictional town in the 1960’s Andy Griffith Show inspired by Mt. Airy] attitude, but if you remember Mayberry, we [Blacks] were missing,” Nicholson said.

America’s dysfunction around race is playing out in Republican-led legislatures across the country. Dozens of them have advanced bills to restrict what students are taught about the nation’s racial history.

Commissioner Harris got the idea to withhold county money from public and private organizations that embrace social activism from Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma.

A bill restricting school districts from teaching critical race theory, an academic discipline from the world of higher education that examines how racism has shaped the nation’s legal and social systems, was signed into law by Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt.

In a video posted to Twitter, Stitt explained his approval of the legislation [4] by saying “As governor, I firmly believe that not one cent of taxpayer money should be used to define and divide young Oklahomans about their race or sex.”

In May, Republicans in the North Carolina House of Representatives approved House Bill 324 [5] — a bill that would restrict what students can be taught about America’s racial history. The bill has yet to be taken up in the Senate. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to veto the measure if it reaches his desk.

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Rep. Kandie Smith

Rep. Kandie Smith, a Pitt County Democrat, compared the bill’s introduction to a “book burning.”

“A small group of enraged individuals are looking to ban an entire concept of thought because it makes them uncomfortable,” Smith said. “The acquisition of knowledge is not a danger to our children but the banning of these ideas for the sake of maintaining the status quo, let’s be clear, that will continue to endanger the lives of Black and Brown children across the state and across this country.”

NC school boards take note

Critical race theory has gotten lots of attention in local school board meetings in North Carolina as Republicans work to bannish it from public education.

In Moore County, the school board has engaged in lengthy debates in response to allegations that the state was trying to insert the concept into new social studies standards.

Raleigh’s News & Observer reported [7] that the Wake County Public School System has also faced criticism from conservatives over an “EdCamp Equity” training event for educators held in February 2020. Among other things, participants talked about disparities in student enrollment in special education and academically gifted programs, critical race theory, white privilege, male privilege and why teachers should wear Black Lives Matter shirts.

The Republican Party of Person County recently hosted a forum at which Sloan Rachmuth, president of the conservative Education First Alliance NC, spoke against critical race theory.

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Sloan Rachmuth

“It balkanizes everyone, so that everyone has to deal with their child coming home and saying ‘Oh, my God, I feel like a bad person’ because of who I am,’” Rachmuth said in a video posted on her group’s Facebook page.

Rachmuth has also hosted “Parent Assertiveness Bootcamps” to help North Carolina parents “push back against Critical Race Theory.”

Rachmuth’s group is part of Education First Alliance [9] (EFA), a national organization that has pledged to fight for the rights of students and against critical race theory.

“Racial discrimination and critical race theory matter, not just because they erode the fabric of this nation, or threaten our freedom, they matter because they fly in the face of the belief that every person, every child, is just as important as the next,” EFA wrote on its webpage.

Fractures in the GOP

Critical race theory has become such a political lightning rod that it has caused fractures among the state’s conservatives.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, a Republican, has endorsed HB 324 in a statement posted on House Speaker Tim Moore’s webpage, but has been criticized by Rachmuth for allegedly seeking state funding to pay for critical race theory training for teachers.

At issue, according to Rachmuth, is a request for $325,000 in state money to pay for “Critical Race Theory teacher training” and “plans to spend $400K in federal funds for the same purpose.”

“As you know, the North Carolina GOP strongly condemns Critical Race Theory and censorship, as does the head of our state party Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson,” Rachmuth wrote last week in a letter Truitt. “You too have condemned CRT [Critical Race Theory] in public, but continue to drive this toxin into all of our classrooms from your DPI perch.”

Rachmuth sent an email blast to lawmakers over the weekend alleging an inconsistency between the superintendent’s actions and the GOP’s stance against critical race theory.

Truitt’s office pushed back in a response penned by Jamey Falkenbury, director of government affairs in the Truitt administration. Falkenbury called the “fringe” group’s claims “borderline conspiracy theories.”

He addressed Rachmuth’s concerns in a note to lawmakers:

The Department would like to extend our current contract with the platform operator for our Open Education Resource platform ($325k). Unclear what the $400k this group is referring to. The OER platform serves as the repository for all resources that the department and teachers share with one another. Under Catherine Truitt’s predecessor’s tenure as Superintendent, there have been inappropriate items on this platform, but they have been removed as soon as we uncovered them. One such example was a continuing education credit course with Culturally Responsive Teaching that included some tenant of critical race theory. This course was signed into contract under the previous Superintendent, as well as 1619 curriculum which was posted on the OER prior to Superintendent Truitt taking office. As a department we continue to clean up the OER platform and eliminate biased curriculum or information as we find it. At the same time, we are also setting up new processes to ensure that these types of items don’t even show up on the website in the first place.”

Former candidate is watching

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Jen Mangrum

Anti-racism education and equity were to be key elements of Democrat Jen Mangrum’s administration had she been elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction last November.

Truitt won the race with 51.4% of the vote to Mangrum’s 48.6%.

As the elected leader of the state’s system of public education, Mangrum said she intended to send a strong message by defining her administration with a commitment to anti-racism education and equity.

Doing so would have aligned the state superintendent’s office with the State Board of Education, which adopted a strategic plan that focuses on equity.

“I think the idea of [considering the impacts of] systemic racism ought to be at the heart of everything public schools do in North Carolina when we’re making decisions around hiring, decisions around resources,” Mangum said. “I think we need a common commitment by everyone, but particularly by white people, particularly white people in power.”

Mangrum’s position on anti-racism education stands in contrast to Truitt’s. One of the superintendent’s first high-profile acts after taking office in January was to challenge new state social studies standards that require educators to include diverse viewpoints when teaching history.

Meanwhile, Mangum continues to work on an anti-racism education proposal that she hopes will find its way into classrooms.

She stressed that her work doesn’t target individuals; it’s about systems established over centuries that prevent Blacks and other racial minorities from fully enjoying the privileges and rights that whites enjoy.

“Systemic racism isn’t about me as an individual,” said Mangrum, who is white. “So much of the pushback [against anti-racism education] is people feeling guilt or shame or not wanting to feel that.”