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Staff File Photo / Sha'Ni Bailey voices her opinion about national news topics during a January 2020 social studies class at Orchard Knob Middle.

It's a shame, frankly, it had to come to this — a state legislature determining what specifically could not be taught about race and history. We wish it had not, and the decision carries some concerns for the future.

But insidious forces for several years have been making their way into public school classrooms around the country, attempting to convince students through the use of various lessons that the white race is inherently evil and continually wants to subjugate those of other races.

So Tennessee legislators Wednesday approved a bill that would strip funding from schools if they teach such concepts. The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Bill Lee, who has not said whether he plans to sign it.

While the bill is fairly straightforward in its intent, the rhetoric around the bill is not. To hear and see some Democrats describe it, you'd think legislators had forbidden history teachers to talk about slavery, about its shameful past in the history of this country, about laws — especially in the South — that kept free Blacks in some semblance of slavery for another century beyond the Civil War, and about a civil rights movement that sought to change that.

State Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, for instance, said that "I think we do have to admit that slavery did occur. It was a dark period in our history."

Similarly, state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, claimed the bill seeks to erase centuries of Black Americans' history.

Nothing in the bill, though, prevents the discussion of slavery or pointing out that slavery was antithetical to some of the remarkable concepts promulgated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Nor does it prevent instruction on Black Americans, whose contributions should continue to be taught and celebrated along with those of other races.

Indeed, the discussion of slavery begins in the state's public school fourth-grade social studies curriculum and is the major part of at least seven lessons. The civil rights era is discussed as part of the fifth-grade curriculum, and slavery and civil rights are taken up again in numerous lessons as part of Tennessee history in the same year.

Students return to Black history as part of the eighth-grade curriculum, which includes a specific study on African American history, including such subjects as "the economic, social, religious and legal justifications for the establishment and continuation of slavery," "the economic and social impact of Jim Crow laws on African Americans," "the extent to which the civil rights movement transformed American politics and society," and "the responses of African Americans to the economic, social and political challenges in the contemporary U.S."

Students also return to the subject as part of the high school social studies curriculum.

All of that should be taught. It's our history. We can't and shouldn't run from it.

But it shouldn't be mixed with alternate histories that suggest the country was founded when slaves first came to American shores in 1619 (instead of with the 1776 Declaration of Independence), that the U.S. is still fundamentally racist, that the country was designed by one race to oppress another, or that one race is privileged over another.

However, during legislative discussions over the bill, we heard little if any references to the offending concepts already being taught in Tennessee schools. But several-year-old reports in both Hamilton County and Williamson County detail white privilege being a part of continuing education sessions for teachers.

The bill then, we assume, is preventive — in the same way the state requires helmets for motorcycle riders to prevent brain injuries and seat belts for automobile drivers to prevent the worst accident injuries.

We do worry, though, about the legislature taking a giant step into what cannot be taught. For instance, while teachers shouldn't instruct as fact discredited race theories, neither would we want them to stifle productive classroom discussions around the subject of race.

If they mention various theories as part of a discussion, are they advocating them? Who will know? Where is the line?

That seemed to be the concern of Hakeem, who worried that "teachers are going to be undecided" and "will perceive they'll be sticking their necks out" if they veer off the salient facts of slavery.

And with legislators stepping into history discussions, will they in the future also want to ban discussions of reproduction (better left to parents), religion (individuals should make up their own mind) or calculus (most students won't need it in the real world).

In the end, because of the sheer volume of what's in the state's curriculum, we don't believe what was passed by the legislature will prevent discussion of Black history and its implications today. But we hope it will prevent those lessons from going off the rails into what American history isn't and instead will foster a culture of what a united country could look like today.

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