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Bill on ‘divisive concepts,’ against ‘critical race theory’ in education sparks statewide debate

Bill part of national effort to restrict teaching of structural racism, other concepts in public schools

A state bill proposing the prohibition of “divisive concepts” in education has sparked controversy across Rhode Island on the inclusion of racial justice curricula in public schools.

The bill, which was introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly early March, comes amid a nationwide push by conservatives to limit such curricula in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer. At least 24 other states have seen similar actions in recent months.

The bill includes provisions such as prohibiting teaching students that “the state of Rhode Island or the United States of America is fundamentally racist or sexist” and that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt or anguish on account of their race or sex.”

According to State Representative Patricia Morgan (R-Dist. 26, West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick), one of the authors of the bill, these provisions are collectively intended to root out what she referred to as critical race theory in schools.

“Critical race theory is a poisonous ideology that seeks to impose a new kind of racism,” she told The Herald. “It would have us judge people by the color of their skin instead of by the content of their character, which is the opposite of the goal that MLK set for us as a country and that we have embraced since the 1960s.”

Critical race theory is a branch of critical legal studies, typically covered in law school, that seeks to understand how the law perpetuates racial inequality. In recent months, however, the term has become a buzzword among conservatives, encompassing education about phenomena like institutional racism, white privilege and unconscious bias.

Morgan said that the bill is meant to ban education about concepts like structural racism and white privilege. “To be telling a six-year-old that they are guilty of white privilege — which, by the way, is a made-up construct — that’s just wrong,” Morgan said. “I don’t want them to be indoctrinated in an anti-white ideology that is poisonous to our American culture.”

But many teachers, students and organizers opposed to the bill say that it is intended to ban conversations in schools about racial injustice in American history and its persistence into the present.

Providence teacher Lindsay Paiva said that the bill is intended to “put handcuffs on teachers and on schools, to limit what they can say.”

She added that many teachers feel that such bills create a culture of fear that threatens to chill necessary conversations about history and racial justice. “If you’re limiting what a teacher can say, and what they can teach about, and making sure that it fits within the box of white supremacy culture and that it’s aligned with this false narrative of American history — that’s indoctrination,” she said. “And that’s powerful, because then you’re bringing up generations to grow up knowing a false history.”

On the issue of critical race theory, Paiva said, “We don’t teach critical race theory in schools that are K-12 … This (buzzword) is a tool to mobilize the right.”

Paiva was an organizer of a June 12 rally against the bill in Bristol that was attended by teachers and students and that featured dozens of testimonies from students, educators and community members. The rally, part of a national day of action organized by the Zinn Education Project and Black Lives Matter At School, was held at the DeWolf Tavern, which was a major site of the slave trade in Rhode Island. “We chose a historical site that, if the bill were to pass, … we would have to lie to students about,” Paiva said.

Nancy Xiong, lead organizer for the Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education, co-organizer of the June 12 event and a student at Rhode Island College, emphasized the importance of teaching about racial justice and diverse histories. “Growing up, I only learned about Eurocentric history and never had the opportunity to explore other perspectives, cultures and history,” she said. “I didn’t learn about my own history.”

“I want the next few generations, and those further on, to not only learn about Europeans and why they came to America,” she added.

Jesse Hagopian, a Seattle high school teacher and an organizer for the Zinn Education Project and Black Lives Matter At School, said that he sees the nationwide push behind this type of bill as a reaction to last summer’s protest movement against police brutality and systemic racism.

“The Washington Post described that uprising as the broadest in U.S. history,” he said. “Given the breadth of this movement, it really scared racists … They had to figure out how to stop this growing racial justice consciousness from spreading.”

Hagopian added that he views the most recent assault on racial justice content in schools within the context of historical racist suppression of education during slavery, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. “They knew that there was power in education,” he said. “This is the tradition that we stand in — this long Black freedom struggle that has always seen education as central to our goals.”

“For today’s racists, they are not so bold as to ban the reading of the word. But they do want to ban the reading of the world,” he said. “They want our students to not be able to understand how power is organized in our society, the role of white supremacy, and they want our students to be confused about the power of solidarity of white students and Black students and Indigenous students and students of color joining arms to take down white supremacy and inequality.”

Hagopian also commented on the national campaign against teaching about structural racism. “This is in no way a grassroots effort,” he said. “This is a well-orchestrated campaign from Republican Party operatives and their corporate sponsors.”

The struggle sparked by the bill has impacted school administrators elsewhere in the Ocean State. Jennifer Lima, a member of the North Kingstown School Committee, said that many conservative parents came to the most recent committee meeting to speak against what they saw as critical race theory. “We have recently created a diversity, equity and inclusion committee as part of our school committee … and they are concerned that we are pushing CRT,” she said.

She added that she and others have been the target of harassment on local social media in recent weeks. In South Kingstown, school officials received a death threat, according to Lima and Paiva.

“I hope that it comes to a peaceful conclusion, but I don’t see them going away quietly any time soon,” Lima said. “Sometimes they think they can intimidate people … but that’s not going to work.”

Editors’ note: Due to safety reasons, the school name of a source featured in this article has been removed.


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