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Perspective | Another skirmish plays out in the long ‘culture war’

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to veto – as he should – a Republican-sponsored bill that would constrain public school teachers in dealing with America’s racial history. The legislation would make it more difficult for North Carolina to meet the current moment when both the state and nation need more robust history and civics in schools to sustain and enhance democracy.

In the General Assembly, Democrats should have enough votes to uphold the governor’s veto. A contentious debate may well end for now in no change in law or policy. Still, the contentiousness rolls on with schools buffeted in the swirling winds of persistent racial divisions.

In a poll conducted in mid-summer, the Pew Research Center found that only a “narrow majority of the public says increased attention to history of slavery and racism is good for society.”  The public’s views, Pew reported, “are divided by age and education, as well as by race and political affiliation.”

Pew Research drew its findings from 10,221 participants in a national representative panel of adults who took a self-administered online survey. The questionnaire did not ask specifically about state legislation; still the findings surely are relevant as context in North Carolina, a politically divided state in the national mainstream.

“Just 25% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say greater attention to the history of slavery and racism is a good thing; far more (46%) view it negatively, while 29% see it as neither good nor bad,” Pew reported. “Democrats and Democratic leaners – across racial and ethnic groups – express overwhelmingly positive views of increased attention to the topic (78% say it is good for society).”

The data suggest that, in advancing legislation that they say would prevent teachers from “indoctrinating” students on racial reckoning, Republican lawmakers align with and reinforce the attitudes of their party’s heavily white coalition. In opposing the legislation, Democrats reflect and give voice to their more multi-ethnic coalition

Pew Research detected differences – of degree and nuance – within each major party. For example, 42% of Republicans under 30 say more attention to America’s racial history is good for society, while 76% of Republicans 50 and older say increased interest is bad for society. Among Democrats, 74% agree that much more needs to be done to achieve racial equality, with 40% saying the task will require rebuilding most laws and institutions and 33% in favor of working through existing systems.

“Three-quarters of Black adults say this increased attention is good, including more than half (54%) who say it is very good for society,” Pew reported. “Smaller majorities of Hispanic (59%) and Asian adults (64%) also say greater attention to the history of racism is good for society.

“Among White adults, however, fewer than half (46%) say greater attention to the history of slavery and racism in the U.S. is good for society, with just 24% saying it is very good – about a third (32%) say it is bad.”

In the history of public education, the North Carolina debate this year amounted to a skirmish – albeit a consequential episode – in the long “culture wars.” Americans have tangled with each other over evolution and creationism, over sex education, over free speech and transgender rights for students, over prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, and over racial segregation and racial history. 

While Pew’s in-depth surveys can provide illuminating context, it also takes a grasp of the both the forward-march and fallibility of the American democratic experience to comprehend contemporary conditions and issues. That’s why a legislative move to tighten a fence around the civics and history classroom ultimately would deprive North Carolina young people of the stories of their society that they deserve to become informed, engaged citizens.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.