A N.C. State Board of Education meeting Wednesday, Jan. 27, became a flashpoint in the national debate over racism and American identity. Some Republicans complained proposed social studies standards were full of negativity, identity politics, and social agendas. Democrats argued that systemic racism exists, saying children should learn multiple perspectives on their country’s history. 

The proposal changes three words — “systemic racism” to “racism,” “gender identity” to “identity,” and “systemic discrimination” to “discrimination” — and introduced a directive to “compare competing narratives of the historical development of the U.S. and North Carolina in terms of how each depicts race, women, tribes, identity, ability, and religious groups.”

The current standards ask students to summarize the development of government on a national and state level. 

The changes sparked immediate pushback from board member Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and other members. The board is set to vote on the standards next week. 

“I don’t think they’re for the benefit of the students. I think they’re for the benefit of those who have a political agenda,” Robinson said. “They are politically charged, divisive, and they smack of a lot of leftist talk. … I know all of the code words, and I know what they lead to. I don’t like where they will lead our students.”

The state board said it eliminated the adjectives “gender” and “systemic” because it wanted to expand the definitions to include other types of racism, identity, and discrimination. 

“It would not be appropriate to discuss gender identity when really the identity in question is the economic identity or religious identity of a group. The same would hold true of racism,” said Catherine Truitt, Republican superintendent of Public Instruction. 

Republicans also pushed back against the proposed standard’s objective to “exemplify ways individuals have demonstrated resistance and resilience to inequalities, injustice, and discrimination within the American system of government over time.”

“There’s a very anti-American, anti-capitalist sentiment being generated,” said board member Amy White. “Call it the Pollyanna approach if you want to. I’ll identify as a Pollyanna today. I think our nation is better together than divided. If we allow these standards to allow the creeping in of negativity, of the dismantling of democracy, the idea that America is not great.”

Board member James Ford criticized the debate over the standards and systemic racism. 

The function of standards is to decide what we want students to know,” Ford said. “This debate is also about what we don’t want students to know. … What we need is not the power of positive thinking. That’s not going to change anything. Our job is to tell people what God loves: the truth. However that leaves folks feeling is up to them.”

The board did not vote on the standards during Wednesday’s meeting. 

“These standards were created by teachers, not the department,” said David Stegall, deputy superintendent of innovation for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. “The standards aren’t set up to create a tone, they were set up to have dialogue with the students.”

The board will next meet Wednesday, Feb. 3. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction and teachers developed the proposed standards.

“The State Board of Education articulated two different visions for the way that social studies should be taught in N.C.,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, John Locke Foundation director of the Center for Effective Education. “It’s clear that rather than finding a compromise, the board is going to choose one or the other. The proceedings of the meeting suggest that they’ll choose these proposed standards.”