Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has drawn fire from two of the state’s top Republicans after the superintendent hired anti-racism author Ibram X. Kendi to speak to district leaders.
When Earnest Winston took over as superintendent of CMS not quite two years ago, he said anti-racism would be central to his efforts to improve education. Last summer, amid the racial turmoil that followed George Floyd’s murder, he launched a book study for district leaders using Ibram X. Kendi’s “How To Be An Antiracist.”
Winston capped that study by hiring Kendi as the keynote speaker for the CMS Summer Leadership Conference earlier this month. He said bringing the author to a virtual meeting with hundreds of CMS administrators was a natural next step: "He’s one of the leading historians and anti-racist scholars in the country."
CMS is a district where almost two-thirds of students are Black or Hispanic. Those students, on average, trail their white and Asian classmates on most measures of academic success, as they do in most districts across the country.
Kendi’s work focuses on examining the history and systems that create those gaps. Winston says that mindset is behind the district’s efforts to rethink things like discipline and access to rigorous classes, where racial disparities show up.
CMS has not released a video of Kendi's talk, but on Monday Winston described a central message: "A takeaway from Kendi for me was that people who believe in equal opportunity, in justice, should actively work to dismantle those policies that have created those different experiences for some students."
Carol Sawyer, a school board member who took part, said the message was that "to the extent that systemic racism appears in our culture, it also appears in our schools, and we need to root it out."
A $25,000 Speaker Fee
When WBT radio reported on the cost of Kendi’s speech — a $25,000 fee and $420 to buy 28 copies of the book — North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, both Republicans, took aim at CMS.
In a joint news release last week, Berger, who is white, called Kendi’s ideas insidious, discriminatory and dangerous. Robinson, who is Black, said the district’s decision to hire Kendi, “makes it clear that the left is working to bring back a racial divide and not unity.”
Robinson says he hasn’t read Kendi’s book or heard his speech to CMS leaders. He says he doesn’t need to know much about the author to label Kendi a problem.
"I do not believe that we need to look at everything through the lens of race," Robinson said Friday. "I think that is a ridiculous notion."
Robinson says emphasizing race promotes division and hatred.
"My whole thing on this is that we cannot allow bigotry — and I call it bigotry, disguised as social justice — to continue to weave its way into our education system," he said.
Focus On Systems, Not Labels
Kendi’s book argues that racism is pervasive and must be addressed. He disputes the notion that it’s important to label individuals racist or not racist. Instead, he writes that anyone, of any race, can engage in racist or antiracist action.
Berger says he hasn’t read “How to Be An Antiracist,” but he’s read other work by and about Kendi. He says Kendi’s approach creates "a new racism" that promotes the idea that "your race is determinative as to whether or not you are an oppressor or whether or not you are oppressed."
Berger says he agrees that history lessons need to include "problematic racial circumstances in the past." But he says Kendi and others go beyond that and "twists it into almost a theology that indoctrinates folks to believe that race is the one and only determining factor as to success or failure."
Winston says the goal of having Kendi speak to administrators was discussion, not indoctrination. "Certainly I would not expect everyone to agree with everything that any of our speakers say."
Berger says he also has concerns about a focus on equity, from Kendi and from educators.
"When he talks about a guiding principle being equity but not equality, I think that’s problematic because the definition of equity kind of depends on who’s doing the defining," Berger said.
National Spotlight On Critical Race Theory
In their news release, Berger and Robinson invoked a label that has become a rallying cry in culture wars: critical race theory.
Critical race theory is an academic concept that dates back more than 40 years.
Keffrelyn Brown, a professor at University of Texas Austin, says the theory "essentially recognizes that racism plays a founding and pivotal role in U.S. social relations. In other words, racism goes back to at least the founding of this country, which means that it’s deeply ingrained in our social fabric."
Brown spoke at a recent Education Writers Association webinar inspired by controversies across the nation where the term crops up.
In North Carolina, the label has been used by people who oppose new state social studies standards for K-12 classes. And it’s central to the strife over whether Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer for her work on The New York Times magazine’s 1619 Project, will get tenure in her new post with UNC Chapel Hill’s journalism school. The 1619 Project made the case that slavery and racism should be placed at the center of America’s historic narrative.
Brown says the term is often used too broadly to describe such things as diversity in hiring and inclusion of multicultural material in classes.
Winston says it’s wrong to characterize CMS instruction as critical race theory: "We do not teach critical race theory in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools."
Controversial Kendi Quotes
Kendi doesn’t label himself a critical race theorist, but he does argue that racism is so deeply entrenched in American history and culture that it creates disparities in everything from student test scores to family wealth and income.
That’s the idea behind one of the quotes from “How To Be An Antiracist” that led the Robinson/Berger critique. Kendi writes that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination” — that is, he explains, race-conscious policies are needed to redress past wrongs.
The other quote the Republican duo highlighted is: “Capitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalist … they shall one day die together from unnatural causes.”
Kendi writes that America’s slave trade gave rise to racism in order to justify making profits from enslaved Black people. He calls racism and capitalism “conjoined twins” that must be fought together.
In 2020, he tweeted that "some self-described forms of 'antiracism' are not anti-capitalist, which in my book means they're not antiracism."
Board Members Defend Kendi's Work
CMS board member Rhonda Cheek, a Republican, says she doesn’t agree with Kendi's views on capitalism but she supports his work on dismantling systemic racism.
"I’m not thinking that there’s a lot of people here that I would agree with on everything they say," Cheek said, "but that doesn’t mean that there are not parts of his work that would be very valuable on improving student outcomes."
CMS board member Ruby Jones, a Democrat, says she thinks Robinson and Berger would learn something from reading Kendi’s book.
"These people have this hush-up mentality, because they have a discomfort about our history — and, quite frankly, our present," she said.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the North Carolina House have passed a bill along party lines that would put limits on how race is talked about in classrooms. It would prohibit a public school from teaching, for example, that “an individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
Berger said he’s troubled by the House’s approach.
"My concern is once you prohibit the teaching of one thing in particular, that becomes something of a standard that is in some respects equivalent to book-burning," he said.
But he says he expects the Senate to work out its own version of a bill to ensure that schools teach history without bias.
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