Georgia education board passes resolution to limit classroom discussions of race

People pack the Cherokee County School Board meeting to capacity on Thursday night, May 20, 2021 to speak out about critical race theory. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

People pack the Cherokee County School Board meeting to capacity on Thursday night, May 20, 2021 to speak out about critical race theory. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Georgia Board of Education adopted a resolution Thursday asserting that the state and country are not racist and that there should be guardrails around classroom discussions about race and controversial events.

The 11-2 vote, with two of the board’s three Black members in opposition, comes amid the latest flare-up in a decades-long culture war where the battles have often been fought in the schools.

Gov. Brian Kemp last month urged the board to take “immediate steps to ensure that critical race theory and its dangerous ideology do not take root in our state standards and curriculum.”

Kemp issued that call hours before a school board meeting in Cherokee County where protesters asserted that white students were being indoctrinated to believe they were oppressors. Several school boards in metro Atlanta had already been addressed by critics of the theory.

The new state resolution does not use the words critical race theory, but it addresses core concerns raised by opponents of it, including national think tanks such as the conservative Heritage Foundation. The Georgia school board’s resolution was copied in large part from a model resolution called “The Partisanship Out of Civics Act,” authored by a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which holds a Judeo-Christian lens to contemporary questions of law, culture, and politics.

The five-page resolution says in part that the board, which is appointed by governors, “believes” that schools should not teach that anyone is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” just because of their race or gender or is responsible for past acts by people of the same race or gender and that no one “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex ... .”

It calls on the board to codify these beliefs into regulations, which would mean different things to different people. Some see it as eliminating a broad-brush treatment of people based on skin color. Some see it as a whitewash of racism.

In a statement Thursday, Kemp applauded the board for “their opposition to teaching Critical Race Theory” and “for making it clear this dangerous, anti-American ideology has no place in Georgia classrooms.” More than a dozen states have passed or considered legislation limiting how race is taught in schools. The debate comes as the impact of race is being reviewed across the country from businesses to classrooms.

It has become a rallying cry for conservatives going into the next election. Kemp has seen a backlash from many conservatives who blame him for not overturning former President Donald Trump’s reelection loss in Georgia. He faces his conservative critics at this weekend’s state GOP convention

Tracey Pendley, the state teacher of the year, is a new nonvoting member of the board. The Atlanta Public Schools teacher spoke against the resolution because of the overall tone, which for her is set by the first item in the resolution. It says the board “Believes the United States of America is not a racist country, and that the state of Georgia is not a racist state.”

“I absolutely am proud to be a Georgian and, no, I do not believe that racism exists across the entire state, but to categorically state and declare that we’re not a racist state flies in the face of all the research that I’ve been taught and that I’ve looked at,” said Pendley, who is white.

Kenneth Mason, one of the two Black board members who voted against the resolution, said he was disappointed he was left out of discussions about it before the meeting.

He said that to him the resolution tells those who’ve experienced racism that “you should and will be silenced.”

Lisa Kinnemore, the only Black board member who voted for the resolution, said there have been times when the history of slavery “wasn’t fully taught.”

White people were not the only ones to enslave Black people, she said. “Black people were actually slaves to Black people, and it goes all the way back even to ancient times.” She said she doesn’t want minority students to be taught that “they will always be victims.”

The resolution prompted a rebuke from advocates for civil rights and teachers in Georgia.

The ACLU of Georgia saw it as a suppression of history by “extreme elements.”

Lisa Morgan, a DeKalb County teacher and president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said it will discourage teachers from touching controversial topics in the classroom: “It definitely seeks to censor discussing current events.”

The resolution itself has no official power over teachers. But if the board writes elements of it into regulation, then teachers could be disciplined for violating it, said Hillel Y. Levin, a law professor at the University of Georgia.

Parts of it could be tricky to enforce, though, like the passage that says no teacher or school official shall teach concepts that cause someone to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” due to his or her race or gender, he said. “I don’t really know exactly what that means because who knows what a student is going to think?”

Groups that advocate for Black students see the resolution as an attempt to “stifle” conversations, as the Southern Education Foundation, a regional group based in Atlanta, put it.

“Efforts to quash classroom conversations about race and racism ultimately place educators in a difficult situation when students ask them to address this highly relevant issue at a pivotal point in our history,” the group said in a statement to the AJC.

Mike Royal, a white school board member who voted with the majority, acknowledged that others may have different views of the resolution. Still, he said, schools must teach the “true story of American history,” including the injustices but “in the context of our nation’s high ideals and the progress we’ve made ... .”