Melissa Smith has had a hectic few weeks.
In late May, an adjunct instructor at Oklahoma City Community College discovered that her Race and Ethnicity in the United States class had been canceled due to a new law, SB 1775, that prohibits critical race theory. The law, signed into law by Gov. Kevin Stitt on May 8, states that “no teacher shall require or make part of a course that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.”
Smith’s summer session of Race and Ethnicity was reinstated by OCCC on June 4. What’s the distinction? Instead of being a social science general education requirement, the class is now an elective. Smith’s concerns are shared by many others in higher education. As more state legislatures work to pass laws prohibiting critical race theory, free speech advocates and college instructors are concerned about the implications for college courses that study race.
Critical race theory is a decades-old academic concept that studies racism as a social construct – rather than something that is solely associated with an individual – and the long-term effects it has on society. Proponents argue that understanding the history of racism is critical to addressing the inequities that result from it, while detractors argue that it singles out white people as the bad guys and teaches white guilt in schools.
Typically, curriculum laws apply only to grades K-12. Conservative lawmakers, on the other hand, have grown bolder in their reach in recent years, sometimes attempting to control what colleges teach as well.
In March, Idaho state legislators cut more than $400,000 from Boise State University’s budget after conservative lawmakers complained about the university’s “social justice agenda.” More than 20 legislators blamed tuition hikes on the school’s diversity programs.
Following an anonymous complaint, Boise State University suspended its diversity seminar a few weeks later. According to the school’s description of the course, Foundations of Ethics & Diversity “helps students investigate how we practice our ethics together as engaged citizens creating an inclusive community.” The school offers a plethora of variations on the course, including studies in censorship, social issues, and the fictional movie and book character Harry Potter, among others.
BSU hired an investigation firm to look into the complaint, which came from someone the university has not identified. The diversity classes were eventually reinstated, but they were moved to an online model in which students watched videos on their own time, which Steinbaugh of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education criticized.
According to a Boise State spokesman, classes are “currently operating as normal in the summer term” and will remain so.
Because its legislative session ended in March, Kentucky just missed the initial wave of anti-critical race theory legislation in the South. However, Republican lawmakers prefiled two bills for the 2022 session last week aimed at prohibiting the teaching of race theory in schoolsOne only applies to public K-12 schools and prohibits curriculum from “promoting” ideas like “one race or sex is inherently superior” or “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
It is unclear how the bill, which includes colleges, is to be interpreted. On the surface, it appears that any type of Black studies, religious studies, or gender studies would be prohibited. However, the bill states that no student “shall be subjected to” courses that include those discussions, which could be interpreted to mean that a student can choose to take those courses but cannot be forced to. If read this way, colleges would almost certainly have to drop any diversity-related general education courses.
Some professors expressed concern that the latest efforts to suppress teaching a more complete picture of how marginalized people have been treated throughout US history may contribute to racial inequalities.