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An Open Letter to the North Carolina State Board of Education

Updated: May 18, 2022

To the Members of the North Carolina State Board of Education:

Albert Einstein once said, “If I were given an hour in which to do a problem upon which my life depended, I would spend 40 minutes studying it.” In order to begin equity work, an organization’s leaders must first identify the racism, the oppression, the biases that exists in its’ structure. This principle of equity literacy is an essential starting point: studying, understanding, and identifying how racism exists in our society (see Equity Literacy for All, Swalwell & Gorski, 2015). In the statement released after the January 27 Board meeting, Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson seems to deny the very existence of racism, calling attention to standard CL.B.1., which states: Explain how individual values and societal norms contribute to institutional discrimination and the marginalization of minority groups living under the American system of government. The press release exclaims “The message here is clear. American [sic] is a racist nation with systems in place designed to discriminate against minority groups. The implication? That you should hate our great nation.” Moreover, in the SBE meeting, he directly denounced the very existence of systemic racism, stating, “The system of government that we have in this nation is not systemically racist -- in fact it is not racist at all.”

Mr. Lieutenant Governor, that students should “hate our great nation” is not the implication of this standard, nor is this the inference students would draw using text-based evidence in the hands of great teachers. However, that America “is a racist nation with systems in place designed to discriminate against” minoritized and marginalized groups is an accurate inference, one that can be drawn through third- through fifth-grade student and teacher resources such as (but not limited to) The Undefeated (Alexander), The Proudest Blue (Muhammad), Harbor Me (Woodson), What Lane (Maldonado), This Book is Anti-Racist (Jewell), The 1619 Project (NY Times), Stamped from the Beginning (Reynolds/Kendi), and Being the Change (Ahmed). As Mr. James Ford stated during the January 27 SBE meeting, “as much of it has been forwarded that the notion of the presence of systemic racism is a matter of debate or subjective, I submit that it is not.” Mr. Ford presented evidence from Article 1 Section 2 of the United States Constitution, a history of segregation, discrimination, redlining, and housing and loan practices. The election and subsequent terms of a Black president and a Black Lieutenant Governor, while noted milestones, are fallacies when used as evidence against the existence of systemic racism. They are red herrings, anecdotal evidence that do not erase 400 years of systemic oppression, racism and bias.

As a parent and educator, I was devastated to hear Ms. Camnitz’ statement regarding the students’ experiences around discussions in their classrooms. And yet, I was also proud that students were lifting their voices to speak up, to say that these are the conversations that we should be having, this is the information we should be getting, so that we can be informed citizens.

I sat in dismay on January 6. Not because this wasn’t the America I knew. It was. Not because I didn’t expect it. I did. But because the police did not act. Because more arrests were not made. I was not surprised or shocked that the events happened, but I confess that a small part of me sat in disbelief at the reaction to the events. I expected the display, the insurrection, the coup, but I experienced dissonance at the privilege, the rage, the supremacy on display, the time it took to shut down, and that a Confederate flag was walked through the halls of the U.S. Capitol. And then a friend posted on Twitter “Each person knocking down those doors once sat in a classroom” (@ChristieNold). With that image burned in my mind, I return to Mr. Ford’s comments at the SBE meeting, when he said he wasn’t sure how we get over it, but the way we don’t do it “is by pretending like these aren't real, dogged, durable, systemic issues that have to be addressed in the way that we're educating folk; because in part by not doing, we facilitate that sort of reaction; and the reaction of it being unprecedented, when it, in fact, is not. It is part of a historical pattern, that we should be engaging young people in the process of thinking about, which is precisely what those young people that Ms. Camnitz referred to said that they wanted to hear, above and beyond even what the teachers said, they said they're not getting it. So that should be our North Star going forward.”

Mr. Lieutenant Governor, you voiced a concern that younger students can’t understand complex issues of race, which you emphasized during the SBE meeting when you said, “I don't think there's any reason why we should be teaching first-, second-, third-, fourth-graders about complex issues that adults quite frankly can't understand. We have members of Congress; we have members of the highest ranks of our government who don't even understand our own Constitution.” Sir, I share your concerns about making sure all of our students are learning to read, write, and do mathematics. I hope that their hearts and souls are nurtured, that they are inquiring into science and social studies, that they experience belonging in their school communities, and above all, I want them to play -- for more than 20 minutes a day in structured recess (a conversation for another time, perhaps).

What research can tell us is happening is that an average first- through fourth-grade student of color at an average elementary school has likely seen or experienced racism, even if they do not have the vocabulary to describe it yet (e.g., Dulin-Keita, et al., 2012, Brody et al., 2006). What the standards do at a young age is equip students with the knowledge to discuss what they are experiencing. Ms. Maureen Stover mentioned the critical role of telescoping curriculum at the SBE meeting, “We have a system where we build upon what students learn from year to year. And by introducing some of those difficult concepts as elementary school students, we're giving them the basis so that they're able to engage in conversations and to have rhetorical conversations as they go into middle school and high school. So, I think it's important that we leave those concepts at the elementary level so that we can begin the process of introducing those to our students and we can begin the process of teaching them how to have those discussions with their classmates and with their teachers.” It is essential that these standards remain, language intact, for the enrichment of student-student and student-teacher dialogue.

I stand in solidarity with educators James Ford, Maureen Stover, and Mariah Morris, as a mother, as an educator, and as a citizen of North Carolina. I fully support not only the importance of using specific language in our state standards, but the overwhelming evidence that proves the existence of systemic and structural racism in the daily lives of our citizens, and in the daily lives of our children in our schools.

Angela Novak


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