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CMS Shares Video Of Controversial Anti-Racism Talk, But With A Limited Audience

Screen shot of author Ibram X. Kendi speaking to Sonja Gantt and CMS administrators at an online summer leadership conference in June.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has released video of an anti-racism presentation that two top North Carolina Republicans called dangerous and divisive without having seen it. The district’s decision to pay author Ibram X. Kendi $25,000 to speak caused the latest flare-up over how educators talk about racism.

Superintendent Earnest Winston hired Kendi as the keynote speaker for the Summer Leadership Conference in June after hundreds of CMS administrators spent a year studying Kendi’s book, “How To Be an Antiracist.”

When Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson heard about the appearance — and the $25,000 speaker fee — they issued a news release last week saying CMS is endorsing divisive, dangerous and discriminatory ideas.

This week CMS released the video to a handful of people who requested it, including Berger, a few reporters and a CMS parent.

No Simple Labels For People

The 43-minute recording shows Kendi being interviewed by Sonja Gantt, a former TV reporter who heads the CMS Foundation. They talk about Kendi’s personal story, how racism can lower expectations for Black students and Kendi’s belief that most people hold a mixture of racist and anti-racist ideas.

Sonja Gantt

"The greatest thing about humans, and potentially the most difficult thing about humans, is that we’re deeply complex," he said.

Kendi says he's more focused on identifying which policies and practices are racist or anti-racist than labeling people as racists. "We use the terms 'racism' and 'racist' interchangeably, when we should not," he says.

He said some people oppose underfunding of majority-Black schools, which he called an anti-racist approach.

"But then on the other hand, they believe that a predominantly white school is superior to a predominantly Black school," he said. "They believe that white teachers are superior to Black teachers."

Critical Race Theory

Based on what they had heard and read about Kendi, Robinson and Berger labeled him as, “perhaps the world's most prominent critical race theorist.” Gantt asked Kendi about critical race theory, which has become a culture wars rallying cry across the country, and about debate over how racism is handled in North Carolina history and social studies classes.

Kendi notes, as others have, that “critical race theory” is an academic term developed decades ago to describe an approach legal scholars use to analyze laws and policies in terms of their racial impact.

"You have local people who are sort of demonizing critical race theory in order to get the way which history is taught," he said. "... I think that it is unfortunate that we are even debating or arguing about whether we should teach our young people about racism in a society where racial inequities are rampant."

Kendi says to talk about how race is taught, people need to get past labels and define their terms.

"When someone is saying, ‘We should not teach kids, white kids, that they are inherently oppressors, I’d be like, ‘I agree, and that’s not what we’re trying to teach,' " Kendi said. "They say, ‘We should not teach that the nation and all of its institutions are inherently and eternally racist.’ I’d say, ‘I agree. That’s actually not what we’re trying to teach either.’ "

Causing Students Distress

He said teaching about the existence of structural racism isn’t the same as condemning people or institutions. And he said a North Carolina House bill that would limit how teachers can approach race could backfire.

House Bill 324 spells out that, among other things, lessons should not cause individuals to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” by virtue of their race or gender. It passed on party lines, with Republican supporters saying it would restrict critical race theory and similar approaches.

"The irony about that is Black students, Latinx students, Native students, Asian students, are commonly distressed and uncomfortable when we teach history in the way that we’ve normally taught it in this country," Kendi said.

Limited Release Of Video

The video isn’t readily available for public viewing. Charles Jeter, the CMS government affairs director, says Kendi’s staff did not expect the session to be made public but CMS agrees it’s a public record. CMS agreed to make it available only on request, using a link to a private YouTube channel.

People can request public records from CMS here.

A spokesman for Berger said he hasn’t yet had a chance to watch. Neither Berger nor Robinson had read “How To Be an Antiracist” or seen the talk before issuing the critique of Kendi.

Their news release contained accurate quotes from the book citing Kendi’s opposition to capitalism and his call for “present discrimination” to address past discrimination. Those topics weren’t mentioned in the CMS talk.

After addressing the administrators via Zoom, Kendi also spoke with a group of students. Jeter says it’s unclear whether that session was recorded.

Copyright WFAE 2021.  For more go to WFAE.org

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.