A Black student raises her hand during class. A state bill would ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools.
Students raise their hands during a class at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Westwood in January 2018. The Shelby County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution that opposes recent state legislation proposed to ban critical race theory from school curriculums. Photo by Andrea Morales.   

Heated discussion marked a Shelby County Board of Commissioners committee meeting on Wednesday before it approved a resolution opposing a state bill banning the teaching of critical race theory in schools. 

The resolution, brought by Commissioners Van Turner and Tami Sawyer, asks Gov. Bill Lee to veto HB580, which would “punish public schools that teach about the struggles and impact of systemic racism in America,” the county resolution says. The measure will go before the full commission for a vote on Monday.

“You can talk about the Civil War, but you can’t talk about the role that race played in the Civil War.”

Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer

The state bill would pull funding from schools with curriculums that include ideas regarding race and gender privilege or refer to the state or country as racist, among other subjects.

The bill is part of a flurry of race-related legislation offered by the Tennessee General Assembly and other Republican-held legislatures across the country. The Memphis City Council passed a resolution Tuesday opposing the bill.

“You can talk about the Civil War, but you can’t talk about the role that race played in the Civil War,” Sawyer told the Legislative Affairs Committee after some white commissioners hesitated to support the resolution.

White Commissioners Mick Wright, Mark Billingsley and Brandon Morrison said they weren’t clear on the intention of the state bill. Wright said he would support the county resolution based on Sawyer’s explanation but Billingsley and Morrison said they needed more time to understand the bill before they voted to oppose it.

Billingsley, who said he hadn’t heard of the bill prior to the meeting, moved to push the item down in the day’s agenda to give him time to read it.

Turner opposed Billingsley’s motion to delay and argued the intention of the bill is racist and that should be clear enough to send the resolution to the full commission.

“I think there’s enough for us to go on. If you don’t have enough, come back Monday and support the governor and all that racist stuff he’s doing,” Turner said. “We’re spending too much time and we got all this other stuff on the agenda.”

Other Black commissioners, including Commissioner Eddie Jones Jr., agreed.

“It’s a no-brainer for me,” Jones said. “This is a very isolated bill that attempts to erase a part of our history, isolated to African Americans … I’m not confused about it.”

Sawyer, frustrated by the hesitancy of some of her colleagues, said Monday’s vote should be unanimous and asked them not to politicize the issue.

“It’s really hard to sit here as the only Black woman on a commission that represents a county that is over 60% people of color and over 50% women, and hear us still hem and haw about whether or not these types of injustices still exist.”

During debate on the bill earlier this month, Rep. Justin Lafferty, a Knoxville Republican, incorrectly argued the Three-Fifths Compromise was adopted to end slavery.

The 18th-century policy declared enslaved people three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining the population of a state, which then determined the state’s representation in Congress and taxation.

“There’s nothing that anyone can (say to) convince me that (the bill) was done to level the playing field or done in good faith …,” Sawyer said.

“It upsets me that people who call me colleague and say that they respect me do not see the harmful impact on me as a 39-year-old Black woman, and on the 9-year-old Black girls in Shelby County Schools today, who are told that their hair is too thick, that their voices are too country, that their names are too complicated and that they cannot succeed.”

Billingsley’s motion to delay failed, and the committee sent the resolution to the full commission on a 10-0 vote. Commissioners Sawyer, Billingsley, Turner, Jones, Wright, Edmund Ford Jr., Reginald Milton, Willie Brooks, Mickell Lowrey, and Michael Whaley voted in favor, while Morrison abstained. Commissioners Amber Mills and David Bradford weren’t present.

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com