Tennessee’s new and controversial law doesn’t use the words critical race theory, which few opponents could accurately describe if their lives depended on it, but the “prohibited concepts in instruction” rules published this week make clear that this is part of the “War Against Teaching History Accurately Because Feelings.”

January 24, 2017 – Memphis, TN: Students line up before lunch at Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Among the prohibited concepts: 

• An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;

• An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex; 

• An individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race or sex.

The word “individual” is doing a lot of work here. This law wasn’t written with children of color in mind, but for white children, whom white Republican legislators wrongly assume can’t wrestle with tough topics and, instead, must be coddled and sheltered.

It is white children who white Republican legislators worry would feel bad if they learn the truth: That simply by virtue of being white, they enjoy educational advantages that their Black classmates do not, not in school discipline or funding or teacher expectations

It is white children who white Republican legislators want to protect from concluding that they have a part to play in remedying the nation’s history of discrimination.

Also prohibited? Teaching that “this state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.”

Irredeemably? I sure hope not.

But fundamentally? Per the Merriam-Webster definition, fundamental means “serving as a basis supporting existence or determining essential structure or function.”

Racism is fundamental to the United States. That fact has been established by the mountains of quantitative research and data documenting decades-old racial disparities in homeownership, where the Black-white gap is at its highest level in 50 years; the Black-white wealth gap, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic; the Black-white wage gap; disparities in criminal justice, including youth incarceration rates, policing and arrests; and yes, public education, where Black children are more likely to have inexperienced teachers and to attend schools with less funding.

(Side note: I suspect that the Venn diagram of those who dismiss the research above and those who dismiss the COVID vaccine safety science is a single circle.)

The penalties for breaking this law are staggering: The state could withhold $1 million from the district for the first violation in a school year and as much as $5 million for the fifth violation in a school year. (Worth noting: Tennessee ranks near the bottom in per pupil spending.)

“The prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease,” our namesake Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said. But Republican legislators, abetted by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, don’t seem to want to accurately diagnose the disease, much less find a cure.

So, where do we go from here?

It’s hard to imagine that this won’t have a chilling effect on teachers, who could lose their licenses if they “knowingly” violate the law.

Maybe some will take inspiration from King, who had this to say to white ministers in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”


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