The contentious culture war over critical race theory played out in many ways in 2021, whether it was at schools, on TV or social media, or at the polls. Now a prominent Rhode Island Republican is facing backlash after suggesting it cost her a friendship.
“I had a Black friend. I liked her and I think she liked me, too,” tweeted state Rep. Patricia Morgan, who is white. “But now she is hostile and unpleasant. I am sure I didn’t do anything to her, except be White.”
She added: “Is that what teachers and our political leaders really want for our society? Divide us because of our skin color? #CRT”
The tweet from Morgan — who unsuccessfully co-sponsored a bill this year that would have restricted the way schools teach the role of race in U.S. history — was met with criticism from state Republicans and Democrats who called her comments “ignorant and embarrassing.” BLM RI PAC, the political arm of the Black Lives Matter movement in Rhode Island, called for her removal from her committees. Her message also spawned the hashtag #IHadAWhiteFriend in response to the tweet, with commenters giving serious and satirical examples of the gap in shared experiences between Black and white people.
“I, too had a White friend. But now he is hostile and unpleasant,” writer Michael Harriot wrote. “I am sure it wasn’t me. All I did is speak truthfully about the history of the country we live in. Is this what happens when you use seasoning?”
Morgan defended her tweet to The Washington Post, saying she “didn’t think it was controversial.”
“It was me saying, ‘Do we want to start separating people and picking friends based upon skin color? Is that where we want America to go?’ ” she said. “I am really concerned that this whole critical race theory that is being pushed through our schools and universities and workplaces is doing just that — it is separating people.”
The lawmaker’s tweet comes as some conservatives oppose lessons in the classroom about systemic racism, which often get labeled as critical race theory, and scrutinize policies aimed at promoting diversity. Critical race theory, an academic framework for examining the ways laws and policies perpetuate systemic racism, is not taught by any K-12 system, but it does take as its starting point that racism is baked into American institutions.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed legislation this month that would allow parents to sue schools teaching critical race theory in the classroom. DeSantis’ Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act was introduced months after Florida banned the teaching of critical race theory in public schools despite the lack of any evidence that it was being taught in the state. The act would also let parents collect attorneys’ fees if they win the lawsuit.
A handful of educators have been dismissed in recent months over the teaching of race and history in the classroom. James Whitfield was embroiled in controversy for months over accusations that he had embraced critical race theory as the first Black principal at Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas and indoctrinated students in the classroom — allegations he has vehemently denied. After the school board voted to suspend him, the district’s board of trustees unanimously voted to part ways with Whitfield. Matthew Hawn, a white teacher in Kingsport, Tennessee, was fired after a backlash for telling his students that white privilege is “a fact.”
Morgan, who is considered one of the most prominent Republicans in Rhode Island, previously served as minority leader of the state House, the first woman to hold the title. She ran for governor in 2018 but lost in the GOP primary.
The 71-year-old representing West Warwick, R.I., has been one of the loudest voices in the state against critical race theory. She co-sponsored a bill in the spring that would have prevented schools from teaching that the state or the country is fundamentally racist or sexist, or that someone “by virtue of their race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past.” The bill, RI H6070, failed to pass in June.
When critics called the bill “racist,” she invoked the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., joining Republicans such as DeSantis, former President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who have done the same.
“I grew up during the civil rights movement,” she told The Providence Journal in April. “Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Had a Dream Speech’ said we should not judge anyone by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Morgan told The Post that she believes her support of the bill cost her the friendship of her “Black friend,” whom she did not name.
“I was really happy to see her and we always joked with one another,” she said. “She’s a bright, smart, strong woman. I really like her.”
That changed, she said, when Morgan ran into her at a recent Christmas party and felt like she was being ignored.
“I was saddened that there was a coldness,” Morgan said.
Morgan’s tweet touched on prominent issues that have bubbled up since racial justice protests unfolded nationwide last year. B.L. Wilson, a former NPR correspondent and editor, wrote for The Washington Post last year that it was not the responsibility of Black friends to teach white people about racism.
“White people can’t content themselves with asking questions of Black people,” Wilson wrote in June 2020. “They should be prepared to face a lot of anger and not shrink from it. Too often, they’ve shown themselves to be unprepared for the emotional heat, too willing to check out.”
Democrats and Republicans were quick to denounce Morgan’s “Black friend” tweet. Those critics included Rhode Island House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Democrat.
“There is no place for divisive remarks by any House member,” Shekarchi said in a statement. “I condemn any such comments.”
Republican state Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung echoed Shekarchi. The GOP lawmaker tweeted a photo and quote from South African Nobel Peace Prize-winning icon Desmond Tutu, who died Sunday, and urged Morgan to do better.
“In how many different languages can I call @repmorgan’s tweet ridiculous & atrocious?” Fenton-Fung wrote. “Patty, want more friends? Stop looking at the color of their skin & instead look at the size of their heart.”
Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, a Democrat who is running for governor, tweeted that Morgan’s comments do not reflect the diversity of Rhode Island, which she called “the strength of our state.”
“Her comments are ignorant and embarrassing,” Gorbea wrote. “Rhode Island deserves leaders who bring people together, not recklessly divide us.”
The BLM RI PAC called on Shekarchi to remove Morgan from all her state House committees, saying her tweet was “offensive and deeply insulting to the Black and Brown community.”
“Anything less than these substantive actions is another tacit acceptance of racism from the General Assembly that can no longer be tolerated,” the PAC tweeted.
While many critics on social media inferred from Morgan’s tweet that she had one Black friend, the GOP lawmaker said that was not the case.
Morgan added that she has not reached out to her friend and didn’t know if the friend knows of the viral tweet.
“Just to be clear, I have more than one Black friend,” she said. “I still like her, that’s the truth. And I am still sad that she seemingly doesn’t like me anymore. I don’t want her to know that this is about her.”
She added: “Again, I have more than one Black friend.”
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