‘State-sanctioned racism’: Debate over Republican-backed bills to ban critical race theory, systemic racism teaching in schools

Public Hearing
Dozens wait to testify in a public hearing for anti-racism bills in the state capitol, August 11, 2021 (WISC-TV)

MADISON, Wis. — A partisan battle playing out in bills introduced to more than two dozen statehouses nationwide over how history, racism, and bias are taught in schools made its way to Wisconsin’s capitol on Wednesday. A public hearing on bills effectively banning the teaching of systemic racism in public schools drew dozens to testify.

The legislation introduced by Republican lawmakers in the state capitol does not specifically cite critical race theory by name, nor does it cite specific curriculum to ban. Rather, it presents itself as stopping public schools from teaching that a “race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” and that any race “bears responsibility for acts committed in the past by other individuals of the same race or sex.”

The legislation also bans teaching that anyone should feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” over their race or sex. It would prohibit material teaching that “whiteness is intrinsically a problem”, bill author Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) said.

State Superintendent Jill Underly said the legislation did nothing to improve teaching and learning in schools, but rather stoked division. “These bills are message platforms that seek to advance a belief that we cannot handle a challenging issue within a school; that teachers cannot be trusted to help kids think critically about what they see, hear, and read,” Underly said in a statement.

“Educators do not need to accuse a student of playing a part in this history to teach them about its factual existence. Ignoring these historic events does not change them or make them go away. It does a gross disservice to our kids and their future. We’re better than this.”

In June, Republican state lawmakers introduced legislation that mirrored a nationwide push against critical race theory, or CRT. It’s a framework developed by legal scholars in the 1970s that teaches how slavery has shaped anti-discrimination legal practices and how Black Americans are treated by institutions through the decades. The system is taught primarily at a college level, but concepts have influenced how history is taught in other curriculums.

Twenty-eight states have introduced legislation trying to restrict how schools teach about racism and bias, a Chalkbeat report found.

Education experts say the application of the term has been often misused, and the name has become a catch-all phrase in recent months, emerging as a key partisan divide over how race and minority history is taught in K-12 schools. On Wednesday, bill authors and other members of the public testifying used a range of definitions for the framework.

“CRT centers on the idea that racism is systemic,” Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) said. Democrats argue that as a college-level theory, CRT isn’t taught in public schools in Wisconsin–and that the real issue at stake is avoiding a racist past.

“That literally is not something being taught,” Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said of CRT in classrooms. “That’s your opinion on the matter,” Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) replied.

“It’s uncomfortable. It’s American history,” Sen. Larson noted. “Whose feelings are you trying to preserve?”

Assembly bill author Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) said he had testimony of people in his district who were suffering “psychological distress” over material current taught in schools. “The point of this legislation is to prohibit it from being taught in our government schools,” Wichgers maintained, calling such curriculum “state-sanctioned racism”.

Similar bills would also ban such teaching for higher education and state employees. Another would require districts to post their curriculum lists online. The legislation would also require public schools to post their curriculum lists online.

Should the bills become law, school districts could be sued for violations, as well as up to 10% of their state funding withheld by the Department of Public Instruction if they don’t correct a violation.

“As great as America is, we haven’t always made the right steps, and we need to talk about that. Students need to talk about that,” Urban League president Dr. Ruben Anthony said Wednesday, who had come to testify against the bills. “It also takes local control away from local school boards. School boards should be making decisions about what the curricula should be.”