As Republican lawmakers across the country advance state bills that would limit how public school teachers can discuss race in their classrooms, educators say the efforts are already having a chilling effect on their lessons.
In recent weeks, Republican legislatures in roughly half a dozen states have either adopted or advanced bills purporting to take aim at the teaching of critical race theory, an academic approach that examines how race and racism function in law and society. Conservatives have made the teaching of critical race theory a rallying cry in the culture wars, calling it divisive and unpatriotic for forcing students to consider the influence of racism in situations where they might not see it otherwise.
In reality, the bills many Republicans have proposed do not directly address critical race theory. Instead, many ban the teaching of concepts that educators say they don't teach anyway.
A bill signed into law by Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt bans lessons that include the concept that "one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex," that a person's "moral character is inherently determined by his or her race or sex," or that someone should feel discomfort, guilt or distress on account of their race or sex.
Nonetheless, educators say the newly adopted and proposed laws are already forcing teachers to second guess whether they can lead students in conversations about race and structural racism that many feel are critical at a time the nation is navigating an important reckoning on those issues.
In Oklahoma City, teacher Telannia Norfar said she and her colleagues at Northwest Classen High School had planned to discuss a schoolwide approach to help students understand current events – including the murder of George Floyd, family separation at the Mexico border, and the use of racist terms such as the "China virus."
"We need to do it, because our students desire it," she said. "But how do we do that without opening Oklahoma City public schools up to a lawsuit?"
She said how and whether they'll do that is now unclear. Paula Lewis, chair of the Oklahoma City School Board, said though the state's new law bans teachers from discussing concepts they weren't discussing anyway, and though its penalties are not yet clear, the danger is the fear it instills.
"What if they say the wrong thing?" Lewis said. "What if somebody in their class during the critical thinking brings up the word oppression or systemic racism? Are they in danger? Is their job in danger?"
Confronting the bloody past
This year, many teachers in Oklahoma are planning lessons on the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, when hundreds of the city's Black residents were murdered by white mobs. It's taken years for education officials to integrate the episode into state teaching standards. While the new law does not ban its teaching, Lewis said it is likely to limit how much teachers feel they can dive into conversations about topics such as structural racism and white supremacy before and since the massacre.
Lewis acknowledged that in a conservative state such as Oklahoma, there are many parents – especially white ones – who support the idea of shielding their children from uncomfortable conversations about race. But she said that's why they're so important.
Similar bills have been adopted or advanced in states including Idaho, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
In Texas, a bill that has passed both chambers of the Republican-controlled legislature would impose restrictions similar to Oklahoma's, including banning public universities from requiring students to take diversity trainings. It would also require teachers who discuss ugly episodes in history, or controversial current events, to explore "contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective."
That bill, H.B. 3979, was written by Republican Steve Toth, who often rails against critical race theory as anti-white, anti-Christian, and anti-American. His office did not respond to an interview request.
Vida Robertson directs the Center for Critical Race Studies at the University of Houston-Downtown. He called Toth's bill "a concerted attempt by Republicans to stifle a widespread and overwhelming demand for racial equality and social justice in the United States by mischaracterizing critical race theory as some abhorrent plot to undermine America."
He said it will give parents who are uncomfortable with the nation's ongoing racial reckoning a tool to go after teachers.
Feels like the thought police
Meghan Dougherty, who helps public school teachers in Round Rock, Texas, develop social studies lessons plans, said Texas teachers already feel that pressure, including one of her colleagues who during the pandemic gave students a virtual lesson on race and prejudice in U.S. society. She said a father at home overheard a portion of it.
"Then he wrote an email to the administration complaining that the teacher was accusing his child of being a racist when they were having a conversation about implicit bias and what implicit bias is and how it affects us," Dougherty said.
She said the proposed bill makes it feel like the thought police are descending on Texas. She said she knows teachers who are already self-censoring. They're "afraid to speak out on issues because they feel there are going to be repercussions from their districts," she said.
Paul Kleiman, a high school history teacher in Round Rock, said he's concerned about the provision in Texas' bill that would require him to teach all sides of current events and ugly chapters in history without giving any side deference. How does he do that when teaching subjects like the holocaust, or the civil rights movement, he asked.
"Does the state of Texas want me to stand up and spend class time saying, well, let's look at all sides of this topic?" Kleiman said. "I don't think that's what the state of Texas wants. But that's what this bill does."
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