Signing the letter to Gov. Lee were six state senators: (top, l-r) Raumesh Akbari, Heidi Campbell and Linda Gilmore; (bottom, l-r) Sara Kyle, Katrina Robinson and Jeff Yarbro.

Six members of the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus are urging Gov. Bill Lee to veto legislation they assert will diminish classroom discussions about race and the origins of racial disparity in America.

In a letter forwarded on Monday (May 17), the Tennessee senators asked Lee to veto Senate Bill 623. It prohibits classroom discussion about slavery or any other racially provocative subject to include “critical race theory.” (Simply put, critical race theory, or CRT is a concept that seeks to understand and explain inequality and racism in this country.)

The controversial measure was sent to the governor for his final approval on the same day.

“This bill was passed on the last day of sessions by the state senate,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-29) of Memphis. “Just when we’re trying to come out of this pandemic and people are dealing with evictions and foreclosures and other devastating circumstances, Republican senators would choose to focus on this.”

Gov Bill Lee (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/TSD Archives)

The case is made in the letter for Gov. Lee to reject the substance of Senate Bill 623:

“We cannot reconcile the promise of our principles and the reality of racism in our history if we do not talk about it. Our children deserve to learn the full story – the true story of the victories, the struggles, and the failings – so they can be prepared to contribute to a future for our nation, where liberty and justice are a reality for all of us.” 

Another concern was expressed regarding recruiting and retaining high-quality, licensed teachers, especially teachers of color, in school districts across the state.

“Essentially, you can’t say that certain things happened or are perpetuated because of race,” said Akbari.

“To support this bill, anecdotal evidence is given about a seven-year-old white girl being taught about race who goes home and asks her parents, ‘Are you racist?’ No one even knows where this story comes from, or even if it’s a real story. On the other hand, what about all the Black children who go home and ask, ‘Am I less than because I’m Black?’”

Akbari called the bill an attempt to deny that “one race bears responsibility for racism against another race because of past actions and policies.” It tries to deny that White privilege actually exists, Akbari said.

The letter to Gov. Lee argues that those in upcoming generations will not be equipped to have meaningful discussions about racism and devise solutions:

“Reckoning with the history of slavery, white supremacy, Jim Crow, and racism is essential not only to fully educate our students, but also for our future. Confronting racism and building a better future requires citizens who are equipped to have hard discussions about race. This misguided law will rob many in the rising generation of the tools necessary to challenge broken systems that produce and perpetuate racial disparities.”

State Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D-19) of Nashville said the bill would have terribly far-reaching consequences in the classroom.

“This bill will have a chilling effect on teachers trying to talk about racism, slavery and the aftermath of slavery,” said Gilmore. “It leaves no room for honest discussion about race. Of course, the governor is going to sign the bill. But it our duty to raise the issue and ask that the bill be vetoed.”

The letter uses the governor’s own words in arguing the case for a veto: 

“Last July, you said: ‘I’ve continuously said that we should learn from our history, rather than whitewash it. More recently, I’ve said that the most appropriate resolution for the Forrest bust is to put it in the appropriate context. I am as committed to those beliefs today as I have ever been.’”

Legislators charged that the bill would “whitewash American history lessons by diminishing classroom discussions about race and the origins of racial disparities… Let’s not erase our progress.”

In addition to Akbari and Gilmore, also signing the letter Heidi Campbell (D-20) of Nashville; Sara Kyle (D-30) of Memphis; Katrina Robinson (D-33) of Memphis and Jeff Yarbro (D-21) of Nashville.