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North Carolina lawmakers mull a workplace ban on critical race theory

FILE - The North Carolina State Capitol stands on July 24, 2013, in Raleigh, N.C.
Gerry Broome
FILE - The North Carolina State Capitol stands on July 24, 2013, in Raleigh, N.C.

Hiring managers in North Carolina would be prohibited from urging applicants for state government jobs to endorse certain social or political beliefs under a state Senate bill that cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced legislation that bans “compelled speech” in the hiring process for state agencies and creates a list of beliefs that cannot be “promoted” in state government workplaces — concepts some state lawmakers have previously equated to “critical race theory."

The proposal would prevent agency staff from encouraging or requiring job applicants to explain their political beliefs or affiliations as a condition of employment. Applicants could still share their beliefs voluntarily.

Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican and one of the bill's primary sponsors, said it is designed to prevent discrimination in hiring and protect new employees from “indoctrination."

It would prohibit anyone entering a state government workplace from compelling executive branch employees to believe they should feel guilty or responsible for past actions committed by people of the same race or sex. Other restricted concepts include that the United States was created for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex and that the government is “inherently racist.”

A private contractor paid to train to state employees could respond to related questions from new hires but would need to make clear that the agency doesn't endorse those ideas.

The same list of beliefs appears in an education bill passed last month by the Republican-controlled state House. That bill, now in the Senate, bars public school teachers from compelling students to adopt what the Republican sponsors consider negative perceptions of their race, sex or nationality.

Some supporters of that bill had applauded the identical provisions for combatting critical race theory, a complex academic and legal framework that centers on the idea that racism is embedded in the nation’s institutions, perpetuating inequality. Neither bill explicitly mentions the framework.

Legislative efforts to ban concepts that lawmakers associate with the framework have largely centered around restricting its instruction in schools, rather than in the workplace. Eighteen states have already limited how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom, and at least nine are considering similar proposals.

But former President Donald Trump popularized the idea of expanding those restrictions beyond schools when he issued an executive order in 2020 prohibiting federal agencies and contractors from including concepts in their employee training sessions that constituted “anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.”

A list of prohibited concepts included in Trump's executive order — which President Joe Biden overrode with a new executive order in 2021 — closely mirror those in both North Carolina bills.

Trump and other prominent Republicans around the country have successfully spun critical race theory into a political tool to curb discussions about racial topics such as systemic inequality, inherent bias and white privilege.

State Sen. Lisa Grafstein of Wake County raised alarms Wednesday that the employment bill could threaten productive workplace discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion.

She questioned whether a provision requiring state employees to respect "the dignity of others" and their right to express differing opinions would apply to respecting a transgender or nonbinary person's pronouns. Daniel responded that the bill would not police employee interactions and would narrowly apply to workplace trainings.

“To the extent that this is about, you know, respecting individual dignity," Grafstein said, "I think the important thing is that it goes in all directions.”

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