“What critical race theory is – it recognizes that systemic racism is a part of American society and challenges the beliefs that allow it to flourish,” said Councilman Martavius Jones, who sponsored the resolution.

by James Coleman — 

Memphis City Council members were nearly unanimous Tuesday (May 18) in adopting a resolution to condemn and restrict the Tennessee General Assembly’s move to withhold public funding to education authorities, such as school districts, that teach critical race theory in their schools. 

“What critical race theory is – it recognizes that systemic racism is a part of American society and challenges the beliefs that allow it to flourish,” said Councilman Martavius Jones, who sponsored the resolution.

House bill 580 is a reaction, one of many in conservative state legislatures nationwide, to the 1619 project. The New York Times effort focuses on the contributions of Black Americans and the consequences of slavery as they resonate within the larger context of the nation’s history. 

It began in 2019, the 400th anniversary of the first slaves arriving on colonial shores via Dutch slave traders. The study of critical race theory itself emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. Some history teachers are currently using it as a classroom supplement.

“It is exactly what is supposed to happen in the classroom, especially at a higher level. It is acknowledging what happened in history and moving on and talking about how they’re relevant today. You can disagree in a classroom, but only if it is allowed to be taught,” surmised Chairman Frank Colvett Jr., who is one of five white members on the 13-member council.

The bill was passed on a 69-20 vote in the Tennessee House earlier this month. A similar bill, SB 623, made its way through the state Senate. It awaits Gov. Bill Lee’s signature.

Arkansas, Idaho and Utah have made similar bills into law.

“This is not something that has derived in the state of Tennessee, but something we have seen coming from state legislators across the country, as it refers to not only just critical race theory as a concept, but the actual teaching or notion that anything that contradicts the thought of race being an issue, a reasoning, or an impact for how we now live in our current day,” said councilmember Michalyn Easter-Thomas, who is also a school teacher.

Critics of the bill accuse its authors of whitewashing history; of being uncomfortable with the facts presented by the project.

“From 1619 to 1865 you are talking about 246 years. That amounts to about 12 generations of Black Americans who were chattel property to other Americans. That’s just from 1619 to 1865,” said Jones. “We’re talking about another 100 years where you had Jim Crow laws, Black laws, that were specifically designed to and targeted to Black Americans.”

The oppression didn’t end there. More covert racist policies emerged and persisted. An example is redlining, which is the denial of goods or services by the government or private sector. Since the demise of the Jim Crow laws, it has been used to stymie wealth accumulation by minorities.

In spite of this history, many are still ignorant of its scope. Councilman J. Ford Canale, who also is white, pointed out that his education into the plight of minorities didn’t occur in earnest until he was elected.

“I was told before I joined this body that this is an education that you can’t get anywhere else. And I would agree. The things that I learned that were not taught in the classroom, my eyes have been opened to. 

“The people that I have met, in the honor of being in this job, the relationships that I have made in this job is an education that I did not get growing up,” said Canale.

The original language of the council’s nonbinding resolution, which called for HB580/SB 623 to be condemned, was amended during the discussion.

“I agree to the messaging here and I just want to know if the maker of this motion may want to change the word ‘condemned’ to restrict ‘any further movement.’ Stop it. 

“Rather than using the word condemned, we’re trying to get it to stop. Condemned to me means we’re saying that it’s negative. I don’t want to say it’s just negative, I want it stopped in its tracks,” said Councilwoman Patrice J. Robinson.

The resolution passed using same night minutes. Council members J.B. Smiley, Easter-Thomas and Canale were added as co-sponsors. 

The vote was 11-0 with councilmember Worth Morgan abstaining. Councilmember Smiley’s vote was not recorded.