Opposition to critical race theory intensifies in Georgia

Cherokee County joins governor, attorney general in denouncing concept
210520-Canton-People gather for a prayer before the beginning of the Cherokee County School Board on Thursday night, May 20, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

210520-Canton-People gather for a prayer before the beginning of the Cherokee County School Board on Thursday night, May 20, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The superintendent of schools in Cherokee County issued the latest volley against a perceived threat that has drawn the attention of the state’s Republican leadership, saying an academic construct known as “critical race theory” will not be taught in classrooms.

In a meeting that drew hundreds, with hundreds left outside after the school board meeting room reached capacity, Superintendent Brian Hightower addressed a local debate of an issue that has flared up across the country. The school board voted 4-1, with two abstentions, to approve a resolution to prohibit implementation of critical race theory and the 1619 Project, a New York Times project that put slavery and Black contributions to democracy at the center of American history, from being taught in Cherokee schools.

“Our intentions have been wildly mischaracterized,” Hightower told the crowd, saying there was never an intent to use the academic theory in classrooms. He added that the district would not be implementing a “diversity, equity and inclusion” program as planned. But he said the district was committed to a social-emotional learning programming to address mental health and rising youth suicide rates.

As he spoke, people from the boisterous crowd booed him. “Liar,” one woman said.

Critical race theory, is a decades-old academic concept that seeks to highlight how race influences all aspects of society and how past inequities have continued to shape policies. The term and concept has become politicized with critics claiming it distorts history.

By the time the meeting started Thursday evening, Gov. Brian Kemp and state Attorney General Chris Carr had already weighed in on the topic.

Kemp, who is aiming to build conservative support ahead of a tough re-election fight next year, urged the state Board of Education to take “immediate steps to ensure that Critical Race Theory and its dangerous ideology do not take root in our state standards and curriculum.”

Fellow Republican Carr had issued a statement Wednesday saying he was joining 20 attorneys general to urge the administration of President Joe Biden “to reconsider educational proposals aimed at imposing the teaching of critical race theory (CRT), the 1619 Project and other similar curriculum into America’s classrooms.” The statement asserted that such goals “are woven into” a U.S. Department of Education proposal involving grants in American history and civics education programs.

The Georgia Department of Education does not mandate the teaching of any particular curriculum. Rather, the agency adopts standards about things students are expected to know and be able to do by certain grades, whether it’s addition in math or the history of the United States in social studies.

For instance, fourth-grade social studies students are expected to be able to explain the causes, major events and consequences of the Civil War. Some school districts adopt curricula. Others leave it to teachers to write their own. In some, it’s a mixture of both.

The conservative backlash against teaching about systemic discrimination and its legacy of racial inequity has grown in recent months. As of mid-May, four states — Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee— had passed legislation restricting how race and racism are taught in schools; and lawmakers in several other states are attempting to do so.

And on Thursday at the Cherokee school board meeting, state Rep. Brad Thomas, R-Holly Springs, said he and other lawmakers were working on similar legislation that borrows language from several of those states plus Texas. A parent with in the district, he called critical race theory a “radical” Marxist agenda, echoing comments earlier this week in a nearby community.

The Forsyth County school board held a public hearing Tuesday on the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion plan, and critics tied it to critical race theory.

“Let’s be totally clear on what diversity, equity and inclusion training is — a Marxist Trojan Horse disguised with sunshine, rainbows, and a bow on top,” said Hunter Hill, chairman of the Republican Party of Forsyth County, who said he was speaking as an individual.

Critical race theory is decades old. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is a loosely organized framework based on the premise that U.S. legal institutions “are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans.”

In Cobb County, several parents spoke in opposition to critical race theory during public comments at that district’s Thursday school board meeting. One parent referred to the theory as “educational terrorism,” while another said it teaches white students that they are bad because they are oppressors and that Black students can’t get ahead because they are oppressed.

“As long as I am Superintendent - I will commit to keeping any theory or curriculum, which is not part of Georgia’s standards, out of every Cobb County School District classroom,” Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said in a statement sent to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday evening.

Before Thursday’s school board meeting in Cherokee, the district was already on the defensive, after assigning an administrator to oversee “social and emotional learning” and “diversity, equity and inclusion,” or DEI.

“There are no plans to introduce “critical race theory” – this is a complete fabrication created through rumor mongering on social media. CCSD follows Georgia Performance Standards of Excellence, which determine what lessons students will learn and when, and those standards do not include “critical race theory,” the district wrote on a a page on its website called “Fact vs Fiction.”

As the crowd outside chanted their opposition to critical race theory, people inside took turns at the rostrums, some like John Peterson, 19, supporting the theory. He said the furor that drew people there was driven by “a rumor that was started by Fox News” and by social media posters associated with QAnon, a discredited far right conspiracy theory.

“We need to acknowledge the fact that some of the places this is coming from are dark,” he said.

Raucous applause met people who spoke against the diversity, equity and inclusion program. Several who spoke in favor of were booed so loudly, that an official had to interrupt the meeting, asking for calm.

Staff Writers Greg Bluestein, Maureen Downey and Kristal Dixon contributed to this article