Opinion: In an Effort to Prevent Discrimination in North Carolina’s Public Schools, HB 324 Does the Opposite
On May 12th, HB 324 passed the North Carolina House of Representatives 66-48. The bill, titled “Ensuring Dignity & Nondiscrimination/Schools,” is a proposed amendment to Article 8 of Chapter 115C of the General Statutes that would add a section restricting the ability of students and teachers to discuss issues relating to race and gender in the classroom. It takes aim particularly at critical race theory, an academic discipline that examines how the United States’ history of racism has shaped the power structures present in American society today.
Supporters of this legislation argue that it would promote equality in North Carolina schools by creating a respectful environment in which all students are free to develop their own opinions. State Superintendent Catherine Truitt was quoted voicing her support for this legislation in a press release by House Speaker Tim Moore, saying:
“This is a common-sense bill that provides reasonable expectations for the kind of civil discourse we want our children to experience in public schools. This ‘golden rule’ approach ensures that all voices are valued in our school system. We want to encourage students to think freely and respect differences of opinions, while ensuring our classrooms are not promoting ideas contrary to the equality and rights of all. Classrooms should be an environment where all points of view are honored. There is no room for divisive rhetoric that condones preferential treatment of any one group over another.”
While the goals she references here are respectable, to make this argument in favor of a bill like HB 324 is, quite frankly, nonsensical. She talks about honoring different points of view as though the very bill she is speaking in support of does not ban certain points of view from being brought up. She also claims to want to ensure all voices are valued when the reality is that such a bill would effectively silence the voices of female students and students of color regarding their own lived experiences.
Another supporter of the bill, North Carolina House Education Chairman John Torbett, was quoted in the same press release, stating:
“Our public schools should be a place of respect—not hateful ideologies.”
Once again, the irony is all too clear. Legislation that restricts discussion of racism and sexism, “hateful ideologies” which Chairman Torbett claims should be kept out of public schools, allows them to thrive.
Examining the specific language used in HB 324 generates yet more cause for concern. Section 1(c) of the bill lists concepts which public schools would be prohibited from promoting. One such concept is described as follows:
“An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
Banning discussion of this idea is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, the inclusion of the phrase, “whether consciously or unconsciously,” is a clear attack on discussion of unconscious bias. Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, refers to prejudices that an individual holds against certain groups of people, often informed by stereotypes. While it may not be intentional, unconscious bias has real consequences. Failure to acknowledge and understand the prejudices one holds against others often leads to actions that are unintentionally discriminatory.
In addition, while acknowledging the fact that certain individuals are inherently oppressive may make us uncomfortable, ignoring it will not make it go away. We, as a society, need to recognize the fact that there are people who benefit from systemic oppression, and there are people who do not. The language used in this bill is very black-and-white, but the reality is much more complicated. Individuals who benefit from systemic oppression are not to blame for creating the power structures that put them at an advantage, but by failing to actively oppose those structures they are complicit in upholding them.
Another concept which would be prohibited if this bill were to be enacted is described as:
“The belief that the United States is a meritocracy is racist or sexist or was created by members of a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex.”
Here, it becomes clear what this bill is truly about. It aims to censor school curricula and prevent younger generations from being taught unflattering parts of our country’s history. Whether we acknowledge it or not, the fact remains that the oppression of women and racial minorities has been integral to American history. Banning discussion of this fact is harmful to these groups, especially to Indigenous Peoples, whose oppression has been a common thread throughout American history, from exploration and colonization to the present.
Another issue I find in this bill is the way it defines “promote.” One could argue that teachers should not bring up their own political views or present their opinions as facts in a classroom setting, and I would agree. However, this is already the standard. My issue is that this bill has a much broader definition of what it means to promote an idea. Three definitions are used in the bill. One of these is as follows:
“Including concepts … in curricula, reading lists, seminars, workshops, trainings, or other educational or professional settings in a manner that could reasonably give rise to the appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement.”
The primary issue with this definition is that it equates the inclusion of a concept in reading lists or curricula with endorsement. Considering that supporters of this bill have argued that it encourages students to think freely, it seems odd that it would essentially ban public schools from exposing them to certain ideas. There are a number of ways that ideas can be incorporated into a curriculum without being endorsed by the school. Teachers could present an idea to a class without giving their own opinion and encourage discussion or debate, for example. If HB 324 is enacted, even exercises such as this will no longer be permitted.
All of these provisions within HB 324 work together to create a bill that censors critical thinking and attempts to force students to conform to particular ideologies. By restricting which ideas students can be exposed to, the bill also restricts their ability to analyze the power structures that have shaped the history of the United States, as well as how these structures are reflected in modern day society.
If today’s students are not taught about how racism and sexism are intertwined with American history, they will grow into adults who do not understand the modern effects of discrimination and oppression. A person who is unaware of an issue is unable to take steps to combat it, so failure to make students aware of the issues that affect the United States today will only perpetuate a cycle of oppression.
Classroom conversations about discrimination are especially important in that they expose students to new perspectives that they may not hear about at home. Discrimination comes in many forms, some of which may not be recognized by individuals for whom they are not everyday realities. Listening to and understanding the perspectives of a diverse group of people can help students to understand how systemic oppression impacts the everyday lives of their peers as well as what they can do to change this.
In addition to educating students who do not experience oppression and discrimination firsthand, these conversations can also give female students and students of color a forum in which they can make themselves heard. Discrimination remains prevalent in classrooms and can only be addressed by taking into account the lived experiences of the students most directly impacted by it. Unfortunately, HB 324 seeks to prevent these conversations from taking place.
In a statement released on May 12, the ACLU of North Carolina pointed out the hypocrisy in the process of passing the bill:
“The way this bill was fast-tracked with no opportunity or notice for public comment is a perfect illustration of what legislators hope to achieve in classrooms across the state. Lawmakers pushing this bill do not want to hear views that conflict with their own. North Carolinians deserve better than a sham process that radically overhauls what can be taught to the more than 1.5 million public school students in our state.”
Legislators in support of this bill claim that it is intended to promote respect for all points of view, but by passing such a radical bill without considering the opinions of the public, they make their true intentions strikingly clear.
Representative James Guilliard aptly described HB 324 as a “don’t-hurt-my-feelings bill,” highlighting that the bill prioritizes the feelings of some students over the lived experiences of others.
The truth is that, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, female students and students of color continue to be harmed by systemic oppression while white and male students continue to benefit from it. Bills like HB 324 which censor discussions about this truth do not erase its impact. Rather, they allow it to thrive by creating an environment in which students who have been given an unfair advantage are allowed to sit comfortably at the expense of those who have not.