Norman North teacher's race comments draw scrutiny and support

Students gather Tuesday morning at Norman North in a show of support for philosophy teacher James Coursey.

A Norman North philosophy teacher’s lecture on race has created an uproar after a student released a recorded excerpt on social media.

In a lesson about how to heal the racial divide in America, James Coursey said “to be white is to be racist, period.”

The teacher went on to say, “Am I racist? And I say, ‘Yeah.’ I don’t want to be. It’s not like I choose to be racist, but do I do things because of the way I was raised?”

The student, who wished to remain anonymous, said she felt the teacher was encouraging people to pick on people for being white.

Her father questioned why demonizing one race was acceptable.

Coursey’s comments have drawn national attention and have inspired reactions of outrage on social media. Some have called Coursey’s comments hypocritical and racist. Some are calling for his job.

But Coursey also has drawn support.

Before the first school bell Tuesday morning, over a hundred Norman North students gathered in silent demonstration in solidarity with their teacher and his message.

In a statement released Tuesday, the demonstrators said, “What has been reported in the news doesn’t accurately portray what happened in our philosophy class, nor does it reflect what we believe in at our school. The information was taken out of context and we believe it is important to have serious and thoughtful discussions about institutional racism in order to change history and promote inclusivity.”

Norman Public Schools Superintendent Joe Siano said a number of parents have inquired about the situation.

“I’ve got 1,100 teachers that interact with students every day and they do a tremendous job of dealing with these kinds of issues and I feel very confident in that,” Siano said. “Most of our families realize that there is more than one side to the story.”

Siano said the situation could have been handled better but agreed that those kinds of discussions are necessary to produce a thoughtful, critically minded student body.

“Racism is an important topic that we discuss in our schools,” he said in a statement released Tuesday. “While discussing a variety of philosophical perspectives on culture, race and ethics, a teacher was attempting to convey to students in an elective philosophy course a perspective that had been shared at a university lecture he had attended.

“We regret that the discussion was poorly handled. When the district was notified of this concern, it was immediately addressed. We are committed to ensuring inclusiveness in our schools.”

University of Oklahoma liberal studies professor Paul Ketchum said research supports Coursey’s assertions, but the wording was poorly executed.

“I think it was a rookie error in teaching about race,” Ketchum said. “You go for the big term when a less loaded term would be better to make it a teachable moment.

“That’s where this teacher’s going to face a lot of blowback, because most of the students at Norman North are white and come from white families. That’s why they might view this as an attack on them. And I get that. It’s statistically not correct, but I understand why they would react that way.

“My deepest sympathies to the teacher, because he is going to get hammered.”

Ketchum was surprised to hear about the show of support Tuesday at Norman North.

“It does surprise me, but maybe it shouldn’t. Norman is a well-educated school district. I’m glad people are supportive. It sounds like the teacher was trying to do a good thing and teach his students a well-supported pointm” Ketchum said. “The fact that [the media] is reporting on it, though, tells us just how significant race still is. I hope everybody realizes that the teacher is academically, factually on solid footing.”

Still, many people expressed anger at the fully inclusive generalization that all white people are racist, regardless of their attitudes and actions.

Others are just tired of hearing about it.

“Everything offends these kids nowadays,” said Karen Gilleland, grandmother of two Norman North students. “I wasn’t raised at a time where if someone looked at you cross, you got offended. You pulled up your big girl panties and you went on. I have a problem with how everything offends everybody.”

She said that includes being labeled a racist.

“I’m not racist and I’m white, but that doesn’t offend me because I know better,” she said. 

Mack Burke is an investigative reporter and award-winning feature writer and columnist for The Norman Transcript. An OU alumnus, he has lived in Norman since 2003.

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