Race shouldn't be taught in 'divisive' way, Tennessee governor says

FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2021 file photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answers questions after he spoke to a joint session of the legislature at the start of a special session on education, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

FAIRVIEW, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Friday echoed arguments in favor of a bill that would restrict what concepts on institutional racism can be taught in school, saying students should learn "the exceptionalism of our nation," not things that "inherently divide" people.

The Republican's supportive comments stopped short of an explicit promise to sign the bill, which passed in the waning moments this week of a monthslong legislative session. Asked about the legislation, he also derided what he described as "a political commentary that's divisive," saying it's "not factual education."

"We need to make sure that our kids recognize that this country is moving toward a more perfect union, that we should teach the exceptionalism of our nation and how people can live together and work together to make a greater nation, and to not teach things that inherently divide or pit either Americans against Americans or people groups against people groups," Lee told reporters after touring a high school in Fairview.

According to the legislation, schools would be banned from teaching that "an individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously."

While most of the majority-white GOP caucuses in the House and Senate supported the effort, Black Democratic lawmakers have warned the measure would make schools fearful to teach about the United States' history on race.

"Right now, it doesn't seem like we took two steps backward, it seems like we took 10 steps backward," state Rep. Vincent Dixie, a Black Democrat from Nashville, told reporters on Friday.

"If you are a person of color and you live in Tennessee, you feel very diminished right now that you don't feel like you're part of the conversation," he said.

Tennessee passed the measure as a handful of states are also considering restrictions on how schools and state agencies should talk about race and racism.

Particularly, Republican lawmakers are targeting "critical race theory" - which seeks to highlight how historical inequities and racism continue to shape public policy and social conditions today.

Similar restrictions targeting schools have been enacted in Idaho, while Oklahoma's governor is facing pressure to veto the bill. In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed a version that primarily focused on employee training to become law without his signature.

This year, Tennessee Republican lawmakers also passed bills to influence whether students have to learn about contraceptives and gender identity.

Lee has signed a bill that requires school districts to alert parents 30 days in advance of any instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity and let them opt their student out. The requirement would not apply when a teacher is responding to a student's question or referring to a historic figure or group.

Another bill awaiting Lee's signature would let parents request to view information about contraception and condoms that's included within a family life curriculum, giving them the right to opt their children out of those lessons.

While Lee and GOP legislative leaders praised the recent lawmaking session as successful, Democrat leaders criticized the passage of a slate of bills targeting hot-button social issues, including in schools.

"There might be some sensible Republicans left, but you never know it from what we're doing as a Legislature," said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat from Nashville.


Kruesi reported from Nashville, Tennessee.