A coalition of educators and civil rights organizations sued the state of Oklahoma over a law that limits what can be taught about racism and gender in public schools, as well as public colleges and universities – the first federal lawsuit to challenge one of several laws passed by Republican-controlled states seeking to prohibit critical race theory.
The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and others, claims that House Bill 1775 violates students’ and teachers’ free speech rights and denies students of color, LGBTQ students, and girls the opportunity to learn about their history. The law, signed into law in May by Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, prohibits teaching that people are inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Oklahoma is one of eight Republican-controlled states that have passed legislation aimed at censoring classroom discussions about race and gender, as a result of a conservative-led backlash against critical race theory. Several other states are considering similar legislation, and bills have been introduced in Congress by Republicans as well – despite the fact that the federal government is prohibited by law from influencing or dictating school curriculum.
The culture war began two years ago, when The New York Times published “The 1619 Project,” bringing critical race theory out of academia and bringing into the public consciousness the idea that the racial inequality that is built into so much of how the United States operates today has its roots in slavery.
Critical race theory has since enraged Republicans in statehouses and Congress, who regard it as divisive. And it’s become a buzzword for some in the Republican Party who want to use its politicization to energize the party’s base ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. It has resulted in a slew of bills aimed at outlawing the teaching of critical race theory specifically or outlawing contentious discussions about racism, discrimination, or privilege in general – despite the fact that the concept of critical race theory is not taught in public schools.
According to a report from the nonpartisan America’s Promise Alliance, an education organization that collaborated with its research arm, the Boston University-affiliated Center for Promise, and GradNation, an organization that advocates for higher graduation rates, among others, just over half, or 56 percent, of students surveyed reported having opportunities to discuss race and racism “sometimes or a great deal” at school. Only about one-third of students said their school curriculum “sometimes or a lot” represented non-white communities.
“While police violence, protests, and calls for racial justice have occupied the public discourse in communities across the country,” the report concluded, “many students continue to lack access to opportunities to discuss race and racism within their classrooms.”
Educators in states that have passed laws similar to Oklahoma’s HB 1775, on the other hand, argue that they jeopardize their ability to accurately teach major U.S. history events by, for example, prohibiting them from using words such as “”diversity” and “white privilege,” as well as prohibiting the use of books such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “A Raisin in the Sun.”
While conservative culture wars tend to flash, fizzle, and fade, critical race theory has proven otherwise. The debate is currently igniting protests at local school board meetings across the country – even when the issue is not on the agenda – and has resulted in an increase in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence directed at board members.
The Department of Justice announced earlier this month, at the request of the National School Boards Association, that it would mobilize the FBI to work with state and local law enforcement leaders to outline strategies for dealing with the incidents – a move that drew criticism from Republicans. While the Oklahoma lawsuit is the first of its kind, it is unlikely to be the last, as educators in other states have begun teaching with the new restrictions in place.
For example, earlier this month, a school administrator at the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, advised teachers that if they assigned students to read a book about the Holocaust, they should also provide students with access to a book with a “opposing” viewpoint.