Curtis Weathers: "... after what this nation has gone through in recent years, I cannot imagine how any (history) teacher could leave critical race theory out of any discussion of racism in America.) 

by Curtis Weathers —

House and Senate lawmakers in Tennessee have passed bills that prohibit educators from teaching elements of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in Tennessee’s public schools.  

Critical Race Theory is the study of race relations in America and how historical inequities and racism continue to shape public policy and social conditions today.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, has signaled he favors the bill, although he has not yet attached his signature. He said students should learn “the exceptionalism of our nation,” not things that “inherently divide” people. 

CRT has been around since the early 1970s. While college professors have used the term for decades, the debate about its use in public school classrooms ramped up last year when then-President Donald Trump made it something Republicans could love to hate.

The bill passed by Tennessee lawmakers states, among other things, that schools could not include or promote instruction or curriculum that teaches that the United States is “fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist;” or that an individual, by virtue of the person’s race or sex, “is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”

The state education commissioner can withhold funds from schools and districts where teachers violate this law.

Legal scholars are debating whether the new law can pass legal muster. Others, who have studied the bill, say it is poorly written and hampers freedom of speech and academic freedom in the classroom. 

State Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, a sponsor of the House bill, in an effort to defend he and his colleagues, cited an email he received about a 7-year-old white female student in Williamson County, who was emotionally distraught after discussing white privilege in her school.  

“I’m ashamed that I’m white,” she told her mom, according to the email. 

I wonder if Rep. Ragan ever thinks about how young black children feel when discussing their history or, for that matter, the racist activity we see here in America on a daily basis? 

I doubted it!

Ragan also said teachers should “teach according to Tennessee academic standards for social studies, which the legislature has approved.”

To my knowledge, teachers have never been limited to just state-approved academic standards when deciding what and how to teach in their classrooms.  

Because a teacher has a discussion in his or her classroom about critical race theory does not mean they are neglecting the state’s academic standards. These topics can at any time blend easily into discussions of standards-based material on slavery and racism in America.

In fact, after what this nation has gone through in recent years, I cannot imagine how any (history) teacher could leave critical race theory out of any discussion of racism in America.  

The job of our legislature is to approve curriculum standards, not police Tennessee classrooms.  

Nevertheless, the discussions taking place across America about CTR are fascinating. 

The more Republican legislators try to mute discussions about the legacy of race relations in this country, the more energy they seem to give to this debate about CRT. 

It was painful to listen to the video discussions of this bill on the Tennessee House floor. Some of the arguments and comments were simply insane.  

It is clear, however, that this law is symbolic at best and will be difficult to enforce. 

But it will most surely serve as a deterrent to some educators who want to teach and discuss a deeper, more comprehensive perspective of how the legacy of racism impacts today’s society.   

But in talking to many of my former colleagues, both teachers and administrators, they are confident this bill will not deter their efforts to address this issue.  

In fact, they are more excited then ever about teaching CRT in their classrooms.  

What teachers really need, they said, is training on how to facilitate the robust and thorny issues of equity and racism, so they can appropriately engage their students in these types of discussions.  

Nevertheless, the objective here is clear. Republican lawmakers are trying to censor any meaningful discussion about systemic racism or inherent racial bias. But it will not work. 

The Organization of American Historians, the nation’s largest professional organization of scholars of U.S. history, reminds us that, “The best historical inquiry acknowledges and interrogates systems of oppression — racial, ethnic, gender, class — and openly addresses the myriad injustices that these systems have perpetuated through the past and into the present.” 

The Critical Race Theory debate is here to stay, and it looks like we are just getting started. Teachers, as usual, will find a way.

Stay safe, Memphis. Get vaccinated! 

(Follow TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers on Twitter (@curtisweathers); email: [email protected].)