Kaaren Haldeman (left) and Elaine O’Neal

In an eight-page press release that reads like a truth-twisting campaign commercial, North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger wanted to make clear last month that he does not support teaching critical race theory in the state’s public schools. In fact, he supports legislation that would ban teaching critical race theory, and also favors a constitutional amendment that would ban affirmative action, and he used a report from Durham’s Racial Equity Task Force, made public last summer, to prop up his case.

“They say conditions today, months after North Carolinians elected their first black lieutenant governor, ‘are not very different from those in 1925,’ a period when people of color were beaten, hanged and mutilated in the streets,” Berger’s press release says, in reference to the task force’s report. “‘Black people are still enslaved because they’re black,’ Durham’s task force reports,’” the press release continues.

That’s just not true. 

July 23 marked the one-year anniversary of the 60-page report that was submitted to the Durham City Council by the 17-member task force. What they actually stated about the “enslavement” of Black Americans in the report was in reference to the impact of mass incarceration: 

“The deep divisions that are seen today are not very different from those in 1925,” the report reads. “Most of the statistics for [Blacks, Indigenous, and People of Color], in any arena, lead to the realization that real change has not occurred. Black Americans are still enslaved, now in what is called prison, and slaves are now called inmates, felons, or defendants.” 

Last week, members of Durham’s task force issued a statement condemning  Berger’s statements. The members say the group stands strong in its commitment to create [an] anti-racist society and condemns those who would thwart anti-racism efforts.

“We strongly rebuke the reaction to this work from some of the people who are supposed to be representing us in our democracy, but instead choose to use their power to condemn anti-racism during a pandemic where there is so much work to be done,” the members relayed in a one-page press release.

At the crux of the debate is the GOP-led House Bill 324, that seeks to prohibit public school teachers from teaching “that the belief that the United States is a meritocracy is an inherently racist or sexist belief” or that the country “was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.”

The bill passed the House in May by a 66-48 vote along party lines and has been referred to the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee.

As the INDY previously reported, members of Durham’s city council and school board each adopted resolutions opposing HB 324.

In the press release, the task force members said the purpose of their work “was not to berate or indoctrinate, but to demonstrate that neither the legal victories of the civil rights movement nor the election of a Black President ended racism; instead, racism continues to be steeped in our institutions. The actions of some of our leaders only prove our point.”

Sen. Democratic Whip Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County also criticized Berger’s statements.

“I have not heard any concrete evidence where students have been indoctrinated,” Chaudhuri said. “What I have heard is that it does away with critical thinking in the classroom.”

The task force’s statement echoed Chaudhuri’s criticism, and suggested there is a dangerous precedent with the establishment of what has been called “memory laws,” and “government actions designed to guide public interpretation of the past.”

“We can easily see there is no substance to their dogma, but we can’t ignore the danger of their inflammatory political maneuvers,” the task force members said. “In fact, the efforts to dismantle equity in the classroom go against the very principles of democratic schooling they purport to represent.”

House Bill 324, according to Berger’s press office, would not permit public schools to compel students “to affirm or profess belief in several discriminatory concepts.” 

Berger, in his statement, says the intent of the legislation is the passage of a law that prohibits “indoctrinating students while preserving the inviolable principle of freedom of thought.”

“Children must learn about our state’s racial past and all of its ugliness, including the cruelty of slavery to the 1898 Wilmington massacre to Jim Crow,” he adds. “But students must not be forced to adopt an ideology that is separate and distinct from history; an ideology that attacks the ‘very foundations of the liberal order,’ and promotes ‘present discrimination’—so long as it’s against the right people—as ‘anti-racist.’”

Task force co-chair Elaine O’Neal, a pioneering superior court judge and N.C. Central law school dean, derided Berger’s desire to not indoctrinate students.

“I can tell you about indoctrination,” O’Neal, who is running for mayor of Durham, told the INDY. “When I was in the third grade—and I wasn’t the only one—we were taught the song, ‘jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton.’ I still know the words to that song, and the dance steps. It’s a prison work song that was created by Black men. Why were you teaching a prison work song to Black children in the third grade? That’s indoctrination.”

Co-chair Kaaren Haldeman told the INDY that Berger’s attack on public education is nothing new. Yet he offers no solutions and continues to harm students and families.

“We call on the leadership in Raleigh to stop the dog-whistle politicking and act immediately to address the continued suffering of North Carolinians,” she says. 

During a period where America has reached a nadir in conversations about race, the task force members highlight the ongoing toll of a global pandemic that continues “to bring immense suffering, and  has further exposed the deep racial inequities in our society.”

Moreover, they point to the irony of a “national moral panic over whether white people are being discriminated against or indoctrinated by anti-racist efforts.”

“What is wrong with working toward an antiracist society where everyone thrives?” the task force members ask. “We will continue to be an advocate on behalf of many who are suffering and we are clear that all of us need to stand up for our communities, especially when they are under attack … We believe in a future where racial disparities are not inevitable, but we are not there yet—and we must listen to our community to get there.” 

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.