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Did new Tennessee law negate critical race theory or prove it?

On May 4, the second-to-last day of this year’s Tennessee General Assembly, legislators paused to pay their respects to the late state Sen. Thelma Harper, who died April 22. “She wasn’t smiling, not that day,” state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, said later. “The way they did that bill was disrespectful to Sen. Harper, to all Black legislators, to all Black people in this state.” The bill, House Bill 580, was approved May 5. (AP File Photo/Erik Schelzig)
On May 4, the second-to-last day of this year’s Tennessee General Assembly, legislators paused to pay their respects to the late state Sen. Thelma Harper, who died April 22. “She wasn’t smiling, not that day,” state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, said later. “The way they did that bill was disrespectful to Sen. Harper, to all Black legislators, to all Black people in this state.” The bill, House Bill 580, was approved May 5. (AP File Photo/Erik Schelzig)

On May 4, the second-to-last day of this year’s Tennessee General Assembly, legislators paused to pay their respects to the late state Sen. Thelma Harper, who died April 22 at age 80.

Harper, a sharecropper’s daughter and the first Black woman elected to the state Senate, the first woman to preside over the Senate, was the  opens in a new windowfirst woman to lie in state at the Capitol.

After dozens of legislators quietly filed past Harper’s body, the governor, the lieutenant governor and the House speaker, all Republicans, stood in front of the open casket and paid tribute to the Democrat from Nashville.

“Sen. Harper was always very kind and courteous. Her beliefs were strong and she expressed those beliefs,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said. “She was the epitome of the best that we’ve had. She’s in a better place now, and she’s looking down on us, and I think she’s smiling.”

Antonio Parkinson
Antonio Parkinson

“She wasn’t smiling, not that day,” state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Democrat from Memphis, said later. “The way they did that bill was disrespectful to Sen. Harper, to all Black legislators, to all Black people in this state.”

The bill,  opens in a new windowHouse Bill 580, approved May 5 just before the legislature adjourned, was signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee without comment.

The  opens in a new windownew law lists 14 concepts teachers cannot discuss in their classrooms, but the legislators who pushed the bill didn’t solicit testimony from a single teacher or administrator.

The law restricts what K-12 teachers can tell their students about race and racism, but the handful of white legislators who pushed the bill didn’t solicit advice or support from a single Black legislator, and every Black legislator voted against it.

The bill allows for “impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race,” but prohibits discussion of systemic racism, the concept that “a meritocracy is inherently racist” or designed “by a particular race to oppress members of another race.”

Legislators who pushed the bill said they heard from “countless” parents across the state who were concerned about critical race theory and antiracism being taught in classrooms, but they didn’t identify any particular schools and the bill doesn’t mention either concept.

Supporters say the new law negates critical race theory and prevents “the ideological indoctrination” of impressionable students.

“Critical race theory is a flowery form of racism that teaches children what to think, not how to think,”  opens in a new windowwrote Carol Swain, a former Vanderbilt University law professor and co-chair of former President Trump’s 1776 Commission.

“Minority students have it drummed into their heads that they are at a permanent disadvantage because of the color of their skin. When told that they are inherently and perpetually racist and oppressive, white students sometimes become crippled by guilt and shame about their race and ancestors.”

Opponents say the new law is its own form of ideological indoctrination, proves critical race theory and systemic racism, and requires teachers to “whitewash” American history.

“They stopped what they think is racist education by enacting a law that’s going to stop us from engaging in education about systemic racism and racial inequalities, which then highlights their racist intent,” said Charles McKinney, who teaches history at Rhodes College.

“History is asking two questions: What happened and why. You literally can’t understand how American history unfolds if you don’t understand systemic inequality. The true story falls apart, and you’re left only with the myth of American exceptionalism.”

The brief and unusual history of House Bill 580 tells its own true story.

A ‘cleanup bill’

House Bill 580, filed quietly Feb. 5, began its life as a routine bit of legislation intended to correct a number of minor, outdated sections of state education law.

John Ragan
John Ragan

“It’s essentially a cleanup bill,” state Rep. John Ragan, a six-term Republican legislator from Oak Ridge who filed the bill, told members of the House’s K-12 subcommittee March 30.

“It removes references to ‘policy’ that should refer to ‘rule,’ that sort of thing,” explained Ragan, a retired Air Force pilot and instructor. “I’m told it’s inconsequential in terms of impact.”

The “inconsequential” bill was approved without discussion or dissent by the education committee in less than five minutes April 14; by the government ops committee in less than two minutes April 19; and by the calendar committee in less than 15 seconds April 22.

Six days later, April 28, Ragan pulled the bill off the House floor and referred it back to the education committee. The Senate already had approved its version of the bill 33-0.

“That’s not normal,” said Parkinson, a retired Marine and Memphis firefighter who serves on the House education committee with Ragan.

“A minor bill gets all the way to the House floor, and suddenly it gets sent back to the originating committee?” said Parkinson, also serving his sixth term. “We knew something was going on. We just didn’t know what.”

On April 19, three days before House Bill 580 was sent to the floor for approval, the  opens in a new windowBiden Administration announced new priorities for federal education grants for American history and civics courses.

They included “projects that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning.”

Schools applying for the grants should describe how teachers will “take into account systemic marginalization, biases, inequities and discriminatory policy and practice in American history,” the announcement explained.

The announcement cited the New York Times Magazine’s “ opens in a new window1619 Project”, which reframes the nation’s founding around the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia.

The project was awarded a Pulitzer Prize last year. The Pulitzer Center is offering  opens in a new windowcurricular resources based on the project. At least five school systems have adopted the curriculum, including those in Chicago and Washington D.C.

“Schools across the country are working to incorporate antiracist practices into teaching and learning,” the April 19 announcement stated. “Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.”

The April 19 federal notice sent shock waves through conservative advocacy groups.

“The woke revolution in the classroom is about to go federal,” Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center,  opens in a new windowwrote that day in the National Review. “President Biden’s Department of Education has signaled its intent to impose the most radical forms of critical race theory on America’s schools.”

The next morning, April 20, the Tennessee branch of  opens in a new windowEagle Forum, a right-wing advocacy group founded by Phyllis Schlafly in 1975, posted Kurtz’s column and sounded the alarm: “STOP Critical Race Theory in TN NOW!”

Laws cut both ways

Critical race theory emerged in the 1980s and 1990s among a group of American legal scholars.

They argued that the law has and can be used to secure and protect civil rights, dismantle racism and promote racial equality.

But, they argued, the law also has and can be used to protect white supremacy, deepen racial inequality and uphold racial hierarchies and inequities.

“Critical race theory recognizes that racism is codified in law, embedded in structures and woven into public policy,” the  opens in a new windowAmerican Bar Association states. “CRT rejects claims of meritocracy or ‘colorblindness.’ CRT recognizes that it is the systemic nature of racism that bears primary responsibility for reproducing racial inequality.”

While legal barriers to equality have been reduced or eliminated, CRT argues, that hasn’t erased race-based disparities in education, employment, housing, health, wealth, criminal justice and other aspects of society.

“Public policies tend to treat this racial inequality as a product of poor personal decision-making, rather than acknowledging it as the result of racialized systems and structures that restrict choice and limit opportunity,” Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a history professor at Ohio State University, wrote in the preface to  opens in a new windowTeaching Hard History, a 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The formal and informal barriers to equal rights erected after emancipation, which defined the parameters of the color line for more than a century, were built on a foundation constructed during slavery. Our narrow understanding of the institution, however, prevents us from seeing this long legacy and leads policymakers to try to fix people instead of addressing the historically rooted causes of their problems,” Jeffries added.

A story takes root

On April 21, a day after Eagle Forum sounded the alarm about critical race theory, about 100 members of the Williamson County Republican Party met to express concerns that aspects of the theory were being taught in their elementary schools.

A woman who identified herself as the parent of a student at Liberty Elementary School in Franklin said her daughter came home from school one day and told her, “I’m ashamed that I’m white.”

“The 7-year-old is now in therapy. She is depressed. She doesn’t want to go to school. She is scared to death and has even had thoughts of killing herself,” the woman said,  opens in a new windowaccording to the Tennessee Star, a conservative news outlet.

School district officials said they have been unable to confirm the story.

“I’m baffled,” David Snowden, superintendent of the Franklin Special School District,  opens in a new windowtold Chalkbeat last month. “Most people with issues come to us for help in resolving them. But we have heard nothing directly from a parent.”

Nonetheless, Eagle Forum posted the story and it began spreading on Email and social media.

Ragan quoted the story directly, without attribution, when he presented a new amendment to House Bill 580 May 3.

“Lest you think we don’t have this problem in Tennessee,” Ragan told House education committee members, “listen to the following quotes forwarded to me concerning a 7-year-old girl in Williamson County.”

CRT critics take aim

Critics of critical race theory trace its roots to 19th Century Marxism — even though Marxism focuses on capitalism while CRT focuses on white supremacy.

”The early CRT theorists combined the Marxist perspective that the world is divided only between oppressors and the oppressed and the postmodern idea that there is no ‘authentic truth,’ only perspectives,” explained the  opens in a new windowGoldwater Institute.

“Critical Race Theorists reject the idea that people should be judged based on their character, insisting they be judged instead only on their identities, rejecting the Civil Rights-era notion of colorblindness … Further, theorists say that the U.S. Constitution and system of laws cannot be neutral, giving rise to the idea of ‘systemic racism.’”

Last September, President Trump condemned CRT.

“Critical race theory, the 1619 Project and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country,”  opens in a new windowTrump said.

Trump banned the use of federal funds for diversity training that focused on critical race theory or lessons about “white privilege.”

He also established a  opens in a new window1776 Commission to “restore patriotic education to our schools.”

Phil Bryant
Phil Bryant

The 18-member commission, which included conservative politicians such as then-Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant but no professional historians, released its report on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“Historical revisionism that tramples honest scholarship and historical truth, shames Americans by highlighting only the sins of their ancestors and teaches claims of systemic racism that can only be eliminated by more discrimination, is an ideology intended to manipulate opinions more than educate minds,”  opens in a new windowthe report says.

The report, which says liberals have created an unchecked “shadow government” and likens progressivism to fascism, was widely criticized by historians as political propaganda.

“They’re using something they call history to stoke culture wars,”  opens in a new windowJames Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, told reporters.

On his first day in office,  opens in a new windowBiden disbanded the commission and revoked its report. He also reversed Trump’s diversity training restrictions.

Members of the commission, including vice-chair Swain, say they will  opens in a new windowcontinue their work. They met again May 24 in Washington. Copies of the commission’s report went on sale May 31.

A late amendment

Mark White
Mark White

On April 27, as conservative groups continued to sound the alarm about critical race theory, Ragan and two of his House education committee colleagues, Chairman Mark White of Memphis and Scott Cepicky of Culleoka, talked strategy.

It was too late in the session to introduce new bills. But Ragan’s “cleanup bill” was broad enough to amend. White agreed to reopen his committee to consider it.

They discussed the move with House Speaker Cameron Sexton of Crossville, who conferred with Lt. Gov. McNally of Oak Ridge. Both agreed to support it.

Ragan filed his amendment Friday afternoon, April 30. He introduced it to the House education committee the following Monday morning, two days before the legislature was scheduled to adjourn.

“That’s an unusual time to have a committee meeting,” Parkinson said. “Most members don’t get to Nashville until Monday afternoon every week.”

Ragan introduced the 477-word amendment with a five-minute speech condemning those who support critical race theory as “seditious charlatans,” “conniving hucksters” and “misguided useful idiots.”

Yusuf Hakeem
Yusuf Hakeem

Parkinson and his two fellow Democrats on the committee, Harold Love of Nashville and Yusuf Hakeem of Chattanooga, all African American, were seeing the amendment for the first time. Each took turns asking Ragan to explain its implications.

“This is very personal to me, being a descendent of one who was a slave,” Love said. “What prompted this bill?”

Ragan talked again about the 7-year-old girl. “I got many emails,” he said.

“Are you saying to us that what is called systemic racism does not exist in America?” Hakeem asked.

“This bill does not address systemic racism per se,” Ragan replied. “It addresses teaching Tennessee standards… The term ‘systemic racism’ is not mentioned anywhere in any of the standards… Therefore, I would maintain that is a topic of discussion outside the parameters of this bill.”

After about 25 minutes of discussion, the committee passed the bill as amended 12-3. Hakeem, Love and Parkinson voted against it.

Final approval

On May 4, as the late Sen. Harper’s body lie in state in the Capitol, the full House took up Bill 580 as amended.

Those in favor argued that students should be taught that, while America had its founding flaws, it is today a “colorblind” society where all citizens are “created equal.”

“I believe we have much work to do to fulfill our promise as a nation,” Ragan said. “But to fulfill that promise, our children must be educated that they stand as individuals equal before our laws, as they will one day stand before their Creator.”

Those opposed argued that students should be taught that America can’t possibly be a “colorblind” society because racism was baked into the system from the beginning and continues to advantage some citizens at the expense of others.

G.A. Hardaway
G.A. Hardaway

“Taking the discussion of race, ethnicity, discrimination, biases, out of the classroom does a disservice not only to students but to every principle this country was founded on,” said state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat. “We cannot achieve a more perfect union without recognizing, acknowledging and confronting the imperfections.”

Cepicky spoke in favor of the bill. He said teachers can tell the truth about U.S. history without demonizing it.

“Our citizens are more divided than ever, gridlocked over social issues, race, sex, the economy. Our schools cannot add to the further division,” Cepicky said. “We must be a colorblind society and we must be colorblind in our schools… We cannot teach the next generation to feel guilt and resentment simply because of the color of their skin.”

State Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Democrat from Nashville, spoke against the bill. He questioned language in the bill that says classroom discussions about racism and oppression should be be “impartial.”

“There are absolute facts that my children are going to learn whether they are in your whitewashed bill or not,” Mitchell said. “The Nazis were evil. That’s a given. It’s evil to enslave people. That’s an absolute fact… People who fly planes into buildings and kill thousands of citizens, they’re evil. I want my kids to learn that. If we don’t talk about it and don’t learn it, it can happen again. There’s no good side to the Holocaust.”

White, the House education committee chairman, said the bill simply requires teacher to present facts without assigning blame.

“This is a bill that says do unto others and love your neighbor as yourself and stop the blame game,” White said. “That’s where we are as a nation. We want to blame each other and we can never get over our divide as long as we keep fussing at each other and blaming each other for what we’ve done in history.”

London Lamar
London Lamar

State Rep. London Lamar, a Memphis Democrat, addressed the story of the 7-year-old girl who came home from school and told her mother she was “ashamed to be white.” Ragan repeated the story in his opening remarks.

“I’m sorry she felt that way,” Lamar told Ragan. “That’s what it’s like to be a Black child. Black children feel like that every day. Those little Black kids get upset because they have lesser-quality schools, and less access to quality housing and food, and their families are ravaged by the criminal justice system and the criminalization of being African American. Black children grow up traumatized by their American history. That’s our truth.”

After nearly two hours of discussion, House Bill 580 was approved 69-23.

On May 5, both the House and the Senate approved a final version of the bill by similar margins.

The final version also prohibits public schools from teaching that “the rule of law does not exist but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.”

“That is the very definition of critical race theory,” said state Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican.

State Rep. William Lamberth, a Portland Republican, said the new law will “better enable our children to learn the actual history of our country — the good, bad and ugly — and not some new revised version.”

Hakeem disagreed.

“What we are doing is not offering our children a picture of history as it is,” he said. “If want to bring this country together, we’re going to have to look at our history and accept what it is and move forward from there together.”

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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