Tennessee's Republican lawmakers seek to ban schools teaching about systemic racism in U.S. history

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Andy Sher, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·5 min read
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May 4—NASHVILLE — Tennessee's Republican lawmakers are mounting a last-minute effort to ban public schools' teaching of certain concepts involving systemic racism, with the bill's sponsor saying citizens "must take a stand against hucksters, charlatans and useful idiots peddling identity politics."

"Today, subversive factions are seeking to undermine our unique form of government, of the people, by the people and for the people," Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, told House Education Administration Committee members Monday as he unveiled an amendment to an education rules bill he is carrying.

Members approved House Bill 580 bill on a 12-3 vote, with all three Democrats — among them Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga — objecting and voting no.

The bill would allow state education officials to withhold funding from any school promoting or including certain concepts in the curriculum or any supplemental instructional materials. Among others, the banned ideas would include:

> "An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously."

> "An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex."

> "An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual's race or sex."

> "A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex."

> "This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist."

While Ragan wouldn't say so directly, much of the bill appears to target critical race theory, which holds that race is not biologically grounded but a social construct embedded in U.S. history, life and laws to oppress and exploit Blacks and other people of color.

Tennessee's bill comes as a dozen Republican-led states are pushing similar bills that seek to keep such curriculum from being used in schools.

Ragan said he was provided in email form a letter written by a 7-year-old Williamson County student who wrote, "I'm ashamed that I'm white. ... Is there something wrong with me? Why am I hated so much?"

Ragan said the student, a girl, was experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Hakeem pushed back against the legislation, asking Ragan if he was denying that systemic racism exists in America.

Ragan didn't respond directly but noted "this bill does not address systemic racism per se. It addresses teaching Tennessee standards." The lawmaker added he hasn't seen the term "systemic racism" used anywhere in Tennessee's current standards.

In response, Hakeem said Ragan did not answer the question, noting "there are those, and I'm among them, who feel that systemic racism is real in America. Systemic racism doesn't say the people of America are bad. We're talking about the systems within our government, within our communities."

He said he doesn't support holding against a group of people what their ancestors have done.

"But," he said, "the reality is that people have benefited from that."

The bill would ban the promotion of "division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class or class of people." And it would ban promoting or advocating for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.

The legislation makes a point of saying it would allow teaching of "the history of an ethnic group" and "the impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history." And it would allow "the impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a group of people based on race" and other factors.

Committee Chair Mark White, a Memphis Republican, said "what brought this about is how and what is being brought into our K-12 schools and how it's being taught to our children. We all understand history, it's how we are teaching it."

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Shelby County, countered, "What we have been teaching our children is a lie. Under this amendment, the real truth about George Floyd is not going to be taught, and that's a historical event."

Floyd was a Black man who died when a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on the neck of the handcuffed man in May 2020. Floyd's death set off protests and riots across the U.S. and world. Chauvin last month was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He could face up to 40 years in prison.

The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville. Bell said in an interview that he hasn't had a chance to sit down and examine Ragan's amendment.

"But I do have it and would plan on having that debate on the Senate floor when the bill comes over," he said.

Asked whether there was an issue with what is being taught now in Tennessee, Bell said, "I know there's an issue with my constituents and I think the constituents of a lot of people in the Legislature. We're hearing from our constituents right now who want this addressed because it is something that's discussed not only here in Tennessee but all across the country."

Bell said his own Southeast Tennessee school directors are telling him "this is not being taught in our local area. So I have confidence it's not being taught right now. But this is preemptive to make sure that it's not taught."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.