NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers on Wednesday gave final approval to a bill to strip funding from public schools if they teach certain concepts involving systemic racism in America.
Senators passed Senate Bill 623 on a 25-7 vote, while representatives in the House later approved it 69-20 during sometimes emotionally fraught debates where Democrats, many of them Black, implored mostly white Republican colleagues to reject the measure.
In a debate that gained national attention, Democrats accused Republicans of whitewashing U.S. history and denying that slavery even existed.
"It actually robs teachers of the ability to teach true history," Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, said of the legislation. "And, contrary to what some people may think, being an African American, I do not cast blame, but I think we do have to admit that slavery did occur. It was a dark period in our history. We have to acknowledge the wrongs of our society, even when it's a difficult conversation to have. And as a result of slavery, that today, in 2021, racism still does exist."
Republicans railed against a new educational movement to place America's cultural roots at the first arrival of slaves in 1619 rather than at the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Senate Bill 623View
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, added an amendment to the bill on Wednesday banning teachers from teaching that "the rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups."
Kelsey said that's the heart of critical race theory, as he has understood it for decades.
"They say that the rule of law is a lie," he said. "They say that American democracy is a lie. And because of that, they then choose to recreate the story."
He added, "These ideas are antithetical to everything we stand for."
The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Bill Lee. The governor's office had no immediate comment on whether he intended to sign the measure into law.
Among the bill's critics is Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, who charged Wednesday that the bill seeks to erase centuries of Black Americans' history and experience from public school curriculum for more than a million students and will have a "chilling" effect on what is taught.
"Teachers are going to be undecided," Hakeem said. "Some will perceive they'll be sticking their necks out to do this. And so I feel that's kind of the chilling effect. And our children will not benefit from the broader knowledge and understanding they can get from history and social studies."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, a Riceville Republican who sponsored the original bill and served along with other Senate Republicans on the conference committee that approved the changes, said he believes the legislation is needed because "we're hearing from constituents, not just mine but all over the state.
"I could show you the emails I'm getting ... and saying we don't want these type of things taught in the schools," Bell said.
Bell said school directors in his own district have assured him that the concepts are not being taught.
During the conference committee, Gilmore described her own experience growing up in Gallatin, telling colleagues that she believed her parents faced racial discrimination there decades ago when trying to buy a home. She recalled how she took her young granddaughter to see the movie "The Great Debaters," based on a true story about a Black debate coach's efforts in the 1930s to put his all-Black college student team in competitions with white students.
"She was a little girl, maybe six or so," Gilmore recalled. "And during that movie, the Ku Klux Klan burned down these Black homes, and at the end of the movie, she asked me, 'Why did they hate Black people?' And that was such a hard conversation for me to explain to her why they hated Black people, but it was still a conversation that I had to have with my granddaughter. And I think that these amendments will have a chilling effect on our teachers, and they will be so fearful of losing funding, that they will not even discuss slavery in its context."
Republicans say they are not against teaching students "facts" about American history but are opposed to the teaching of "critical race theory," which holds that race is not biologically grounded but a social construct embedded in U.S. history, life and laws to oppress and exploit Blacks and other people of color.
Kelsey, an attorney who served on the conference committee, said he first encountered critical race theory as a law student at Georgetown University Law School, and it guided him as he added another amendment banning this concept from being taught at Tennessee schools — "All Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
As he told his colleagues at a committee meeting, "We all recognize those words from the Declaration of Independence. We believe them, as Americans, and we should be teaching them to our children, and anything that goes against that would be prohibited."
Kelsey specifically attacked the 1619 Project, an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. The magazine says it aims to "reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative."
America truly began, Kelsey said, in 1776, when it declared its independence from England. He accused The 1619 Project of having "crafted" an alternative beginning.
If the bill is signed, the banned ideas would include:
> "An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously."
> "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 should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual's race or sex."
> "A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex."
> "This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.