Diversity, identity and history: The Aiken County community speaks up about critical race theory

·7 min read

Jun. 8—Critical race theory became a topic of discussion among politicians locally and on a national level, prompting South Carolina's top-ranking education official to weigh in last week.

In April, the U.S. Department of Education proposed to use federal grants for two priorities, the American History and Civics Education programs, which includes the Presidential and Congressional Academies for American History and Civics (Academies) and National Activities program.

"We propose these priorities to support the development of culturally responsive teaching and learning and the promotion of information literacy skills in grants under these programs," according to the summary of the proposed rule by the Education Department on April 19.

According the proposed rule, "It is critical that the teaching of American history and civics creates learning experiences that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students. In turn, racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically responsive teaching and learning practices contribute to what has been called an 'identity-safe' learning environment."

The federal government's proposal has placed a spotlight on the concept of critical race theory across the nation.

According to Dictionary.com, critical race theory is "a conceptual framework that considers the impact of historical laws and social structures on the present-day perpetuation of racial inequality: first used in legal analyses, and now applied in education, communication studies and sociology."

Molly Spearman, the South Carolina superintendent of education, tweeted Thursday, "Now more than ever, we must remain focused on our mission to ensure every graduate is prepared for success and not be hindered by any ideologies or agendas that seek to distract us."

Spearman believes critical race theory ideology has no place in South Carolina schools.

"The South Carolina Department of Education has no current or proposed standards that include CRT concepts and will not be adopting any CRT standards nor applying for or accepting any funding that requires incentivizes the adoption of these concepts in our classrooms," Spearman said in the tweet.

Currently, the Aiken County Board of Education has already taken measures when it comes to the topic.

At the last Aiken County school board meeting May 25, the board tabled three elective courses that were set to be approved for further review to see how and if they relate to Critical Race Theory. The courses in question were Modern Cultural Events, APEX Learning, and Schofield Middle School African American Studies.

King Laurence, Aiken County schools superintendent, explained during the meeting that South Carolina has curriculum standards to follow.

He said he wants to make sure the public understands that any discussion of curriculum begins with those standards, and so it would not be exclusively an Aiken County discussion, it would be a statewide discussion if it was to happen.

The topic of adding the curriculum was brought up by members of the community during the school board's recent town-hall meeting May 18.

The process of adding new curriculum to schools in Aiken County is not decided by a simple yes or no vote.

"The way we usually add things to the curriculum is that the administration puts together a group to study the proposal or grants that are available and then they make a recommendation to the board as to what the board should do, and the board considers that and then decides by vote whether or not to undertake that particular thing," said Dr. John Bradley, the Aiken County school board chairman.

Bradley explained there are many opportunities for the public to come and speak to the board about any concerns and questions they may have. He also mentioned that if this curriculum makes its way to Aiken, it will go through the same process as any other curriculum under review to be added.

"Something as potentially controversial as this will certainly be studied in great detail. There will be public presentations and opportunities for the public's input before the board adopts any kind of curriculum, in particular something as sensitive as this one," Bradley said.

Jeanie Glover, the chief officer of instruction for the Aiken County Public School District, said comments from the public are important when it comes to possibly adding new curriculum.

"Our board members certainly accept input from all of our stakeholders, which includes our parents," Glover said. "They come to our meetings or send their input to the board members because, ultimately, the board members represent their constituents; so for this particular issue, I do think the board members would want to know what our community at-large thinks about it."

At the town-hall meeting, Bradley said the board has had no discussions at this point or no presentations about critical race theory. He did, however, receive "several letters opposing it, but nothing in favor of it," he said.

Jack Borders, an instructor of sociology at Aiken Technical College, spoke at the town-hall meeting explaining his concerns about critical race theory topics.

One of the aspects of critical race theory that he believes should not find its way into Aiken County's curriculum is that an individual — by virtue of his or her race or sex — is inherently racist, sexists or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Borders noted there would be use of materials like Ibram X. Kendi's "How to be an Antiracist" and The New York Times 1619 Project as incentives to be able to create diversity and equity.

According to board members, there have been many Aiken County residents opposed to adding the curriculum.

"If it weren't for a number of emails that I've received asking us not to consider these things, I don't think I would have any information at all because no one anywhere has approached me about including any of these things in our curriculum, ever," Laurence said at the town-hall meeting.

An Aiken County resident did speak up that evening in favor of the curriculum being added. The Rev. Wesley Guyton said he thinks the curriculum is going to be important and hopes that the Aiken County school board members do not turn their heads to it when it does come Aiken's way.

"I'm concerned about it because, if it's not approved, it's kind of like our history will be taken away from us because that's what it's about. It's about teaching the history of African Americans and their stance and what they've done," Guyton said.

South Carolina State Rep. Bill Taylor posted his opinion on the subject on his website on May 7, calling the critical race theory "dangerous education."

Taylor proposed Bill H.4343, The South Carolina Academic Integrity Act, to prohibit items related the critical race theory and using the 1619 Project.

He is not the only person to think of the critical race theory as a threat to students.

According to Taylor, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Iowa, Missouri, Texas, South Dakota, Arizona and West Virginia are some of the other states considering bans on this type of curriculum.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson joined with 20 other attorneys general in writing a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to urge the department to reconsider educational proposals aimed at the teaching of critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and any other similar curriculum.

"We don't want more federal control over South Carolina schools, especially if that includes distorting our children's understanding of our nation's history and its government," Wilson said in a news release May 20. "Our schools should be locally controlled first, last and always."

As of today, Aiken County Board of Education has not received any official statement regarding critical race theory to be added to the curriculum.

Glover said, typically, the time frame for approving standards takes place over the course of a year or more, then that comes down to the local level.

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