137 bills

Fresh Air yesterday:

In states across the country, laws have been passed or introduced restricting what teachers can discuss in the classroom and what subjects and ideas should be banned from curricula. These restrictions mostly apply to subject matter pertaining to race, sexual orientation, gender identity and political ideologies and philosophies. Many of these restrictions cover K-12 schools, as well as colleges and universities.

Since January 2021, 137 bills restricting what can be taught have been introduced or pre-filed in 35 different states. Over 87 of those bills are from this year. Restrictive laws have been passed in 10 states. My guest, Jeffrey Sachs, has been tracking these new laws and bills for PEN America, a writers organization dedicated to free speech. He teaches political science at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. His areas of specialization include free speech issues and authoritarianism.

Both of which are decidedly in play here. Right-wing authoritarians don’t want us to be free to learn about other views. (Same with left-wing authoritarians, but their methods are a little different.)

The interview starts with “critical race theory.” What is?

JEFFREY SACHS: In many of the bills, it’s not defined at all. The term is just deployed in the text and then left hanging without any definition attached to it, which is the kind of ambiguity that the most paranoid teacher or outraged parent can fill with whatever meaning they want.

A problem we’ve run into here a lot.

In other bills, they do offer a definition. For instance, they’ll single out ideas like, quote, “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.” In other cases, the bills will prohibit teachers from discussing systemic racism or suggesting that racism is anything other than the consequence of individual prejudice.

Which, ironically, is Robin DiAngelo’s whole shtick, and she presents herself as anti-racist! (She also, I learned the other day, is making a fortune off this grift. She charges tens of thousands of dollars for a talk or “training” session.)

SACHS:… a bill in Indiana that is currently under consideration would require, among other things, that in the runup to any general election in the state, students must be taught, quote, “socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism or similar political systems are incompatible with and in conflict with the principles of freedom upon which the United States was founded.” And it goes on to say, as such, socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism or similar political systems are detrimental to the people of the United States.

Hello 1952, where ya been?

GROSS: So in Tennessee, there’s a law that allows teachers to teach slavery and how Native Americans were treated, but you can’t discuss that in the context of current events. So you can’t, for instance, talk about the George Floyd protests or Black Lives Matter and connect that to the civil rights movement or, you know, to anything else in history that might explain what’s happening now.

SACHS: That’s right. The Tennessee law is a great example of this, the dilemma I’m describing. It does include a carve-out saying that the list of prohibited ideas may be discussed in the context of an historical discussion of past discrimination. But for present-day events, like Black Lives Matter, it would be – the prohibitions would be in place. It would mean that a teacher could not discuss a present-day idea in Tennessee, like Black Lives Matter, if that idea, quote, “promotes division between or resentment of a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class or class of people,” which essentially means that a teacher has to avoid any current event that might possibly cause one student or a parent to feel feelings of resentment towards another.

Which, of course, would be everything. Everything might possibly do that, especially with Fox News in the room.

SACHS: Well, there’s a law currently on the books in North Dakota that was passed last November after just five days of consideration that has me up at night. This is a law that attempts to prohibit critical race theory in K-12 schools. And I just want to reemphasize here, this is not a law that prohibits people from endorsing or promoting critical race theory. It’s a law that forbids them from even including critical race theory in the classroom. And the way that that law defines critical race theory is what has me so concerned. This is a law that prohibits K-12 public schools from including in the classroom quote, “critical race theory, which is defined as the theory that racism is not merely the product of learned individual bias or prejudice, but that racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality.”

So in other words by law schools have to teach children that racism is not systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality. But what if that’s not true? What if some of that systemically embedded racism has been slowly and painfully deleted, but not all of it? What then? What if it’s a mistake to teach fake history?

GROSS: How do you talk about American slavery or mandated segregation without saying that was part of the system? It was – this was like legally-mandated stuff. Would you say it was a bunch of individuals who were racist and happened to own slaves or a bunch of individuals who passed laws? I mean, how do you – these were created legally in the American system.

SACHS: Exactly. This is exactly the concern that’s shared by the North Dakota ACLU, which is investigating this law now and is terrified that whenever you discuss slavery, you’re a teacher, you’re right, would have to essentially say the slaveholders were racist. The system that they were in, the laws that supported them, the economy that made that business profitable, that is – you’d have to separate those institutional features and describe slavery purely as a product of individual bias, which does violence to the topic. It fails to educate students and I think might discourage students from thinking critically about contemporary institutions and identifying whether or not they also might be guilty of systemic racism.

It also completely fails to describe or explain what happened between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

Hail, ignorance.

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