By Cash Michaels –
Is House Bill 324, the “Ensuring Dignity and Nondiscrimination [in] Schools” Act, better known as the “anti-Critical Race Theory” bill, really about protecting students from “radical” racial distortions of American history, and preventing “an individual solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, [from feeling] discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” from what they learn or discuss?
Or is the measure really an attempt to officially rewrite American and North Carolina history so that the truth about slavery; the ’60’s civil rights movement; the 1898 Wilmington Race Massacre, and even, eventually, the January 6th siege of the US Capitol, be whitewashed and covered up?
Several students, teachers and state lawmakers recently took part in a special statewide webinar, Digging Deeper: A Conversation on the Impact of HB 324 on Students, Educators and Classrooms.
Sponsored by the nonpartisan Public Schools Forum of NC, the 90-minute virtual discussion focused on the controversial bill that is currently being debated in the NC General Assembly, and its ramifications if passed.
Participants offered their perspectives, and for the most part made it clear that restricting what social studies and literature teachers can instruct about fact-based American history, in addition to openly and freely discussing that knowledge, hurts students rather than “protecting” them.
KaLa Keaton is an 18-year-old African American student who graduated from Wake County’s Middle Creek High School in June and will be attending Yale University in the fall.
She said that thanks to her African American Literature class instructor, Mr. Matthew Scialdone, she not only learned about North Carolina’s history of lynching—a word she said she’d never heard in prior classes, despite North Carolina being one of the top 12 states in the country for extrajudicial murders of Black residents. She also learned about the state’s eugenics program, the Wilmington 1898 Race Massacre, and other important episodes of state history. And that exposure intrigued her enough to follow up on her own and learn more.
That junior year class was optional, she noted, but she considers it “essential” learning.
“I learned historical points in those classes I never heard in other classrooms,” Ms. Keaton continued. “The point of these classes and culturally responsive curricula is not to sit and wallow in oppression, struggle, and negative energy … and then we’re off to second period math.”
“There was never a day when I felt the weight of the world was on my shoulders,” she continued, adding that as a result, activism has become a critical part of her life—because what she learned was “solution-oriented.”
In other words, having been taught that history usually repeats itself, Ms. Keaton believes better knowledge of the problems and conflicts of history helps ensure that those and similar problems and conflicts are better addressed in the future before they manifest themselves.
Keaton later shared the experience of being the target of racism as sometime the only Black student in her predominately White classes, and she wondered why no one ever thought to pass a law to protect students like her from the hurtful racism that she faced.
Abby Rogers, another former Middle Creek High School student who will attend UNC at Chapel Hill in the fall, talked about the value of being a White student who took an African American history class, being in the minority in the class, and “…being allowed to understand perspectives that I otherwise would never have been exposed to.
Matthew Scialdone, KaLa Keaton’s teacher from Middle Creek High, made the point that if students of color are experiencing racism in the classroom, then White students are certainly emotionally strong enough learn about it, and why it happens.
“The concept that discomfort should be removed from the educational process, to me, that is the moment where the most educational growth happens,” Scialdone, a White teacher who has been in the classroom for twenty years, said, dispelling the stated Republican belief that White students would be emotionally crushed learning the truth about this nation’s racial history.
Rodney Pierce, a Black social studies teacher from Nash County, offered that if HB 324 is passed, then it might become against the law for him to share actual historical documents with his students: documents in which White leaders spoke out against the rights of “the negro,” let alone led movements against them. Pierce explained that such historical documents and speeches are key to understanding what prompted the Civil War, or the Confederacy.
HB324 did have at least one defender doing the webinar. State Sen. John Torbett (R-Gaston County), a primary sponsor of the bill on the Senate side, said “…I support almost everything I’m hearing.”
Sen. Torbett, who is originally from Tennessee, added that contrary to the problem Pierce presented, the bill would not prohibit the use of historical documents or quotes in the classroom that deal with racial statements made by historical figures.
“Don’t read past the language of the law,” Torbett cautioned. “We’re simply [against] promoting things that are bad for the future of the state and the future this country,” Torbett said, later adding that he had no problem teaching about the bad things of the past, as long as the good things were also taught.
Thus, Torbett said, he had no problem with school children learning about the 1961 Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, remarking that the closer that history was for students to learn about, the better.
Critics note that HB324 is so broadly written that if White parents wanted to challenge a teacher for focusing on the issues surrounding the Greensboro sit-ins, they could legally do so if they felt their children were negatively affected by that instruction and subsequent discussion.
Full disclosure: KaLa Keaton, one of the students who took part in the Public Schools Forum of NC webinar, is related to the writer of this article.