Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a resident of Greensboro, home of the Feb. 1, 1960, Woolworth sit-ins, wants you to know that racism no longer exists.
As Black History Month was only days away, Robinson, a Black man, felt moved to make that decree at a state Board of Education meeting last week.
“The system of government that we have in this nation is not systematically racist. In fact, it is not racist at all,” Robinson said of proposed new standards for social studies instruction in public schools that would include discussion of some chapters of American’s past and present that have routinely been underrepresented.
How else, Robinson said, could he have been elected as the state’s first Black lieutenant governor and Barack Obama as the first Black president — twice?
We’ll see Robinson’s examples and raise him a few more: A Black man is the chancellor of Winston-Salem State University, a UNC System school. The city's police chief is Black, as is the Forsyth County sheriff. Four members of the eight-member city council are Black. The state has had two Black chief justices of its Supreme Court, one of them Greensboro’s Henry Frye.
All are clear and laudable signs of progress. In fact, we agree with Robinson that this is the greatest country on Earth.
And yet ... also in his home county, the largest health provider has acknowledged racial bias in medical care and pledged to address it. The young people who struggle most in our schools are students of color. COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color.
Nationally, the threat of violent white extremism is on the rise.
Which is to say, for all its goodness, America also has made some mistakes and bad choices. And it has discriminated, often by design, with government complicity.
And pretending those things don't exist in what we teach in our classrooms is not only dishonest, it's harmful and shortsighted.
Yet some Republican board members see it as anti-American to take an unflinching and inclusive accounting of both this nation’s triumphs and its blemishes in North Carolina's new K-12 social studies standards.
As reported last week in The News & Observer of Raleigh, state Board of Education member Amy White, a former social studies teacher, said the proposed revisions contradict what America stands for. “While I think some of the revisions have been helpful, I still see an agenda that is anti-American, anti-capitalism, anti-democracy,” White said.
State Superintendent Catherine Truitt cited the “explicit language." Terms (cover your eyes and ears) such as “systemic racism,” “systemic discrimination” and “gender identity.”
A current social studies teacher from Cumberland County disagreed.
“By having these standards, that means that every one of our kids in every classroom in North Carolina is going to get the same standardized social studies education with those multiple viewpoints and those multiple perspectives included,” said Maureen Stover, who is advising the board on the standards.
Stover was the 2020 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, and is among four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.
As for America’s missteps, we are not even a year removed from the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Both Republicans and Democrats have acknowledged the disproportionate toll mass incarceration has taken on people of color, and they addressed it in the 2018 First Step Act. As for the past ...
Government-sanctioned, forced sterilization of some North Carolinians lasted into the 1970s.
The Tuskegee experiments in Alabama (1932-1972) intentionally allowed Black sharecroppers with syphilis to go untreated. Conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service, the study resulted in more than 100 deaths from the disease or from complications related to it.
The Wilmington insurrection in 1898 not only was aided and abetted by government leaders and the media — it was allowed to happen by the federal government, without consequence for either the mob or the instigators.
The federal government’s redlining practices denied loans and housing opportunities for African-American borrowers and created much of today's racial wealth gap.
These are only a few examples, all of them, arguably, examples of “systemic racism.”
Yes, there are also many other examples of America’s grit and inventiveness and generosity. And those stories should be told as well. But they already are.
There is no shame in an honest accounting. There is, in fact, honor in it.
America’s body of work as a nation of ideas and ideals is envied throughout the world. A part of that greatness should be a willingness to embrace an ideal that we haven’t yet achieved — what Founders called the quest for “a more perfect union.”
But that requires first acknowledging that we are an imperfect union.
And that, unless we're willing to learn from our past ... well, you know the rest.