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Tension Over How Schools Handle Racism Dominates Packed CMS Board Meeting

People gather outside CMS board meeting.
Gracyn Doctor
People gather outside the Government Center before a three-hour public comment session at the CMS board meeting.

Dozens of speakers packed the Government Center on Tuesday to tell the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board how they do and don’t want schools to deal with racism.

It was the board's first in-person comment session since the pandemic struck. People brought their signs and T-shirts and showed up in force to tell the board about their hopes and fears for the school system.

CMS employee and community activist Kass Ottley brought a sign to the CMS board meeting to encourage teaching children about systemic racism.
Gracyn Doctor
CMS employee and community activist Kass Ottley brought a sign to the CMS board meeting to encourage teaching children about systemic racism.

Kass Ottley, a longtime Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employee and community activist, stood outside with a sign saying, “If Black children are old enough to experience racism, white children are old enough to learn about it.” It referred to controversy over teaching about systemic racism as part of history and social studies classes.

"You know, we want to get rid of racism. We're talking about dismantling racism and ending white supremacy. Then every time it’s time to teach about it and talk about it, it’s all this pushback," Ottley said. "And so I’m out here for that."

Inside, dozens of speakers took aim at what they label critical race theory, or CRT. CRT is an approach to studying law in higher education, but it’s often used to describe an approach to K-12 education that emphasizes the perspectives of people who have been oppressed and highlights systems that create racial disparities. Although few speakers were specific about what they’ve seen that troubles them, they voiced concerns that are being aired nationally and at school board meetings in nearby counties.

"This curriculum that divides people among their race, teaches white kids that they’re oppressors and Black kids that they’ll always lead an oppressed life, is not good for anybody," said David Price, who said he graduated from Hough High School.

People hold signs opposing critical race theory at Tuesday's CMS board meeting.
Gracyn Doctor
People hold signs opposing critical race theory at Tuesday's CMS board meeting.

Melanie Holland said critical race theorists characterize all white people as racist and privileged. "CRT is racism you can feel good about," Holland said.

Abbie Doughtrey said CMS is forcing racist policies on children: "We the people are not going to let you take us backwards with your politically driven agenda. You are not here to raise my child. That is my job."

New history, civics and social studies standards for North Carolina’s schools have fueled controversy all summer over the way they address racism and other forms of oppression.

CRT Or Just Honest History?

In almost three hours of public comments, others said that approach isn’t really critical race theory, but it is an honest accounting of history.

"Fear has no place in education," West Mecklenburg High educator Derrick Moore said. "How can we effectively teach our children history if you want that history to be selective? You can’t exclude history because it makes you feel uncomfortable."

Kris Wawer, who described herself as a teacher and parent, took aim at the people who are trying to restrict how racism is discussed: "The descendants of the people that sought to keep Black children out of white schools are now trying to keep Black people’s identities, stories and histories out of mainstream education."

Meredith Fox called other speakers' use of critical race theory as "the latest buzzword intended to spark divide and outrage."

"The irony of a group of white people declaring racism is over leaves me unsure whether to laugh or cry," Fox said.

Anti-Racism Training Sparks Tension

Another point of conflict was the way CMS is training employees to be anti-racist. Some speakers criticized the district for paying $25,000 for a Zoom presentation from author Ibram X. Kendi, whose book “How To Be An Anti-Racist” was used as a book study topic for administrators.

The meeting gave a glimpse of tension over that training in one school. Earlier this month, a white teacher from Hornets Nest Elementary, Suter Conrad, did an interview on Fox News criticizing the anti-racism training by CMS.

"We had to admit our white privilege," she said in the interview, describing the training. "... Part of it was a matrix of oppression — is what they called it. We had to yield our power to marginalized people."

Tuesday, several of her colleagues, Black and white, said her views don’t represent them — and questioned whether she should be teaching at a school where most students are Black or Hispanic. Here’s teacher Jessica Dreher, who’s Black.

"I felt that her words highlighted our community in an ignorant and racially biased way," teacher Jessica Dreher said. "White people have been the only ones entitled to comfort while learning history. Discomfort should accompany learning."

Conrad also spoke at the meeting but didn’t respond to her colleagues’ criticism. Instead, she talked about critical race theory harming children.

"Racism is taught," she told the board. "Kids do not see it until they’re shown it to them. Therefore when we teach critical race theory in our classrooms, we are teaching that they are nothing more than the color of their skin."

Superintendent: No CRT For Students

The meeting lasted more than five hours. Near the end, after most speakers had left, Superintendent Earnest Winston called critical race theory "a topic that is misunderstood by many and well defined by a few." He said he was hesitant to add energy to a controversy that can be a distraction from the district's business, but wanted to clarify what's happening.

"Our schools do not teach and do not promote a doctrine of critical race theory," Winston said. "Our district does, however, actively support learning and professional development for our staff to be able to recognize the shortcomings of systems that have long contributed to inequities that have led to disproportionate outcomes for students of various backgrounds."

Critical Race Theory Vote In Cabarrus

Other school systems in the region face similar challenges.

Monday the Cabarrus County school board unanimously approved a resolution members described as a response to public complaints about critical race theory. It doesn't include that term, though board member Carolyn Carpenter suggested it should.

"They called it by name," she said, referring to people who addressed the board. "And I have no problem with going ahead and saying that we will not adopt that curriculum and we do not support it.

Instead, the Cabarrus resolution echoes language found in bills that have been introduced in several states to ban schools from teaching that any race or sex is superior to another and from making people feel “discomfort, guilt or anguish” based on their race or sex.

A bill with similar wording has passed the North Carolina House and will go before the Senate education committee Wednesday.

Union County's school board has seen a stream of public comments from people opposing critical race theory, as well as people defending the district's diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

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Updated: July 14, 2021 at 11:33 AM EDT
Updated July 14 to add remarks from Superintendent Earnest Winston.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.
Gracyn Doctor is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity for WFAE.