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Why a South Carolina high school decided to censor Ta-Nehisi Coates
Mary Wood teaches English literature at Chapin High School in Chapin, South Carolina. Wood, who has been teaching for over a decade, offers a variety of honors courses, including Advanced Placement (AP) English Language and Composition. AP courses give high school students the opportunity to earn college credit. To get credit, students must receive a passing score on an exam produced by the College Board, the same organization that produces the SAT.
According to information released by the school district in response to a public information request, Wood is very good at her job. In 2022, for example, 82.6% of Wood's students received a 3 or higher — a passing score — on the AP Language and Composition test. That far exceeds the overall passage rate of 55.7% on the test among all students globally.
But now, Wood is being accused of attempting to illegally indoctrinate her students on racial issues and ordered to remove an award-winning memoir from her curriculum.
Since AP courses are intended to be college-level, they include more sophisticated texts than are typically assigned in high school. No one is required to enroll in an AP class. The course description, created by the College Board, specifically notes that the course involves the thoughtful consideration of controversial issues, including racial issues:
CONTROVERSIAL TEXTUAL CONTENT
Issues that might, from particular social, historical, or cultural viewpoints, be considered controversial, including references to ethnicities, nationalities, religions, races, dialects, gender, or class, may be addressed in texts that are appropriate for the AP English Language and Composition course. Fair representation of issues and peoples may occasionally include controversial material. Since AP students have chosen a program that directly involves them in college-level work, participation in this course depends on a level of maturity consistent with the age of high school students who have engaged in thoughtful analyses of a variety of texts. The best response to controversial language or ideas in a text might well be a question about the larger meaning, purpose, or overall effect of the language or idea in context.
In 2022, Wood assigned a memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, as a supplemental text to her AP students. The book is written as a letter to Coates' then-teenaged son about the reality of being Black in the United States. Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. Wood did not keep the assignment a secret from the school. The school ordered Coates' book for the students, and the Assistant Principal in charge of the curriculum was aware of Wood's selection. Wood received no complaints, and her students excelled on the AP exam. Wood also includes writings from Donald Trump, Malcolm Gladwell, Lou Gehrig, and many others in her curriculum.
In February 2023, Wood assigned Between the World and Me to her AP students again. To prepare the class for the material, she showed students two short videos on racism. One of the videos uses the metaphor of a track meet to explain how things like wealth disparities and housing discrimination can create obstacles for certain racial groups. The other explains how historic practices like redlining can put Black Americans at a disadvantage today. (You can watch the videos here and here.)
In her teaching materials, also released through public records requests, Wood encourages her students to consider Coates' arguments and agree or disagree. An example writing assignment: "What is Coates' primary argument about education and its role in equality? Is he justified in this stance? Explain."
This year, the videos, and Wood's assignment of Between the World and Me prompted complaints from two students. One student chose not to contact Wood or the school principal but emailed Elizabeth Barnhardt on February 5, a newly elected member of the local school board. Barnhardt was endorsed by Moms 4 Liberty, a right-wing activist group.
The student told Barnhardt that the videos "made me feel uncomfortable" and "ashamed to be a Caucasian." The student also claimed that videos "portrayed an inaccurate description of life from past centuries" and "antiquated history." According to the student, the topic of race "is too heavy to discuss."
Two days before receiving this email, on February 3, Barnhardt wrote the district Superintendent, Akil Ross, claiming that she had been contacted by "multiple parents" complaining about Wood's assignment. She demanded the situation be "immediately addressed."
The other student wrote that the videos made them "incredibly uncomfortable." The student was "in shock" that the videos were shown, claiming "a teacher talking about systemic racism is illegal in South Carolina." This student also objected to the book Between the World and Me because, according to the student, Coates was "a Malcolm X fanatic" who believes "everything that is bad happened stems from the 'whiteness' of America." The student accused Wood of trying to "subtly indoctrinate our class under the guise that she is trying to 'get us to think about different points of view.'" It's unclear if the second student sent this email to Barnhardt or someone else.
Chapin High School sided with the two students and Barnhardt. On February 6, Wood was called into a meeting with the Assistant Principal of Instruction, Melissa Magee. According to a "script" provided to Magee and released pursuant to a document request, Wood was told that assigning Coates' book was illegal and "we need you to cease this assignment." The removal of Coates' book was first reported by The State.
The decision did not follow district policy for the challenge of curricular materials. According to the policy, all objections must be made in writing to the superintendent and reviewed by a special committee. The materials are supposed to remain in use pending this review.
In a February 7 email to Principal Michael Ames, Wood objected strenuously the school's decision. "In AP [English Language and Composition] we teach our students the value of understanding the situation with thorough research and discernment before making crucial decisions such as the one made to prevent me from moving forward with a unit of study," Wood wrote.
Is teaching about racism illegal in South Carolina?
According to school officials, Wood’s assignment was “illegal” because it violated a provision included in South Carolina’s 2022-2023 budget law. Known as budget proviso number 1.105, the clause prohibits schools and school districts from using state funding to teach certain ideas surrounding race.
It does not explicitly mention “critical race theory,” but it does prohibit topics that suggest “an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” or “an individual should feel guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his race or sex,” among other things.
In May 2023, the State Senate passed H.3728, which would further restrict the discussion of race in South Carolina schools. This bill would allow parents to “challenge any educational materials they say violate banned teachings around white privilege and implicit bias,” AP News reports. For instance, it prohibits teaching that an individual “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race.” Instead, it calls for “fact-based” discussion of “controversial aspects of history” and “fact-based” instruction of “the historical oppression” of different groups.
The vagueness of the bill raises questions about who gets to determine what’s “fact-based” and what’s “controversial.” During a six-hour debate, State Senator Dick Harpootlian, a 74-year-old white Democrat, noted that growing up during segregation meant he did not “share the same experiences, or ‘facts,’” as his Black colleagues. Another State Senator, Ronnie Sabb (D), questioned “how teachers should approach the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection if parents who wrongly consider it ‘an act of patriotism’ challenge lessons that call it an attempt to thwart democracy.” Failure to define these standards, opponents say, could “lead to potentially inconsistent and arbitrary implementation of the law.”
The bill would also require school districts to announce on their websites “the rights of parents to review all curriculum,” and establish procedures for public reviews. It also prohibits schools from engaging in “any gender or sexual diversity training or counseling.”
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund argues that these measures could “prevent public educators from teaching the full truth, subject them to undue surveillance of their instruction, burden them with unnecessary complaint processes, and risk the loss of a significant amount of state funding.” Up to “$186 million in state aid to classrooms” is at risk for violating the bill, the group says.
The chief architect of the bill, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey (R), insists that "this legislation does not ban books." But South Carolina has already seen an uptick in book bans over the last year under proviso 1.105. The bill could make banning books more common.
The bill was recently referred to a conference committee, where members “from both chambers attempt to find a compromise version of the legislation to pass.” According to the South Carolina education department, critical race theory “is not and has never been incorporated in schools curriculum.”