The Tennessee House has approved a bill aimed at limiting what teachers can say about racial inequality in public schools.
The measure comes amid a conservative furor over “critical race theory,” an academic movement that looks at how the law intersects with race, as well as struggles in some school districts over how to address racism.
Republicans say discussion of race should be limited to instill a sense of national unity and respect for the nation’s Founding Fathers.
“I don’t know how we got here. I don’t know what we do about it,” said state Rep. Justin Lafferty, R-Knoxville. “But talking about changing our history — changing’s not the right word — talking about incorporating another view of history while ignoring the very writings that we have access to is no way to go about it.”
The measure is sponsored by state Rep. John Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican who has previously this year pushed legislation restricting therapies for transgender teens. In years past, he proposed marking the driver’s licenses of immigrants with the word “ALIEN.” Ragan attached the proposal to an unrelated education bill, SB 623, that has already passed the Senate.
The proposal would bar any lesson that causes an individual “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex; that suggests meritocracy is unfair; or that the United States is “fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.”
To illustrate how he believes American history should be taught, Lafferty challenged lawmakers to write an explanation of the Three-Fifths Clause, the section of the U.S. Constitution that counted enslaved people as less than a full person for census purposes. Lafferty then claimed the clause was an effort by northern states to win southern ones over to the cause of the American Revolution, and that its purpose was to weaken southern states’ political power in Congress.
That is untrue. In fact, the Three-Fifths Compromise occurred six years after fighting in the Revolutionary War ended. Most historians say its purpose was to keep southern states from pulling out of the 1787 constitutional convention by counting slaves for purposes of taxation and representation, even though they had no political rights.
Opposition to the measure has been led by Black lawmakers, who say students need to be taught the correct facts about the nation’s history of oppression in order to move past it.
“It doesn’t matter who you are. The very discussion makes some uncomfortable,” said state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis. “But I would tell you, there’s no way to keep working and to keep moving forward on that journey towards a more perfect union and achieving freedom for all until we acknowledge the imperfections.”
The state Senate has not yet debated the proposal but could take it up in the final days of session.