Why North Carolina needs to be honest about history and race

Justin Perry
·3 min read

When new members of the State Board of Education undid the overdue work of establishing Social Studies standards that acknowledged and addressed the role of systemic racism in our nation, they moved from addressing long-term claims of involuntary miseducation to committing first-degree educational malpractice.

As Joe Biden — who is not exactly known for being ahead of the curve on social issues — discusses finally tackling systemic racism, North Carolina has made clear that we are committed to moving backward by taking out the word “systemic” in our social studies standards while having some board members suggest that teaching our nation’s full history is unpatriotic. One might think that if there ever was a time to commit to an honest account of our state, country, and world, following a failed attempted coup might be a good one.

After all, we are the state that successfully executed a coup in Wilmington in 1898. Then, a diverse coalition of working-class whites and newly franchised Black citizens voted during the Reconstruction Era for shared candidates to advocate for common interests of regular people across demographic lines. But Southern Democrats, the preferred party of the white elite at that time, were dissatisfied with the shift in political power among racial and economic lines. They used violence to overthrow the government and subsequently used their political power to disenfranchise Black residents and poor whites alike. They waged suppression via poll taxes, literacy tests, violence, etc., as the South voted Democrat until desegregation came into play, leading southern white voters to become Dixiecrats and post-Civil Rights Republicans while Black citizens never fully participated until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Ironically, post-Wilmington suppression simply restored the original voting order of minority rule elections by wealthy white Protestant male landowners.

Social studies should tell that history. It should cover Bacon’s Rebellion in the late 1600s, where European indentured servants and enslaved Africans united against the exploitative elite. It should address the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, Martin, Malcolm, and Fred Hampton being killed for speaking to shared economic interests across peoples. It should discuss how that history parallels the most recent voting turnout of Black, indigenous, people of color, young people and white Americans rejecting the identity politics of our previous president to defeat his re-election bid — many with hopes of addressing basic healthcare, wages, and/or two pandemics (COVID and racism) disproportionately harming our most marginalized.

Nothing was shocking about the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, nor the expected response to Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown and others exposing the impact of defeating centuries-long practices of voter suppression. Now comes the next wave of voter suppression enabled by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to gut the Voting Rights Act. Like clockwork, many GOP-led states will use unsubstantiated fraud claims to disenfranchise communities moving forward just as N.C. Democrats did to their “opposition” following Wilmington 1898.

There are few original scripts in American history. We were built on separating children of people we see as subhuman from their families while sterilizing their women, whether yesterday’s indigenous, enslaved Africans or modern-day immigrants. Pitting under-resourced people against each other with promise of climbing the racial caste is standard while dragging a moderate white male leader to do basic right things is “radical.” We mention division and say “this is not who we are,” because we’ve been miseducated on who we’ve been.

The question is who we want to be? Rigorous honesty in curriculum is the difference between becoming a healthy family versus simply taking pretty holiday pictures with kids sitting on their knowingly abusive uncle’s knee.

Justin Perry of Charlotte is a contributing columnist. Email: justinperry.observer@gmail.com .