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'We Can And Should Teach This History': New Bills Limit How Teachers Talk About Race

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Across the country, Republican state legislatures are drafting laws that aim to restrict how public school teachers can talk about race in their classrooms. Laws have already been adopted in Idaho and Oklahoma, and they're advancing in half a dozen other states. But the laws have angered educators, who say they're being targeted for trying to have tough but important conversations about race with their students. NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Telannia Norfar is a math teacher at Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City. It's a diverse school where she says students have been asking teachers a lot of questions recently about race and current events.

TELANNIA NORFAR: It's all the way from the George Floyd. It's our Hispanic students - when the border was being blocked and many people were being separated, that was sometimes some of our own kids' family - and then our Asian population being told it is the China virus.

FLORIDO: Norfar is on the faculty leadership committee at her school. That group had been planning ways for teachers to bring these topics into the classroom next school year, meaning, Norfar says, sometimes tough conversations about the ways racism is ingrained in American society.

NORFAR: We need to do it because our kids desire it. But how can we do it and we not open up Oklahoma City Public Schools for a lawsuit?

FLORIDO: She says that because...

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KEVIN STITT: I just signed House Bill 1775 into law.

FLORIDO: ...Of a new law that Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed earlier this month that makes it illegal for public school teachers to discuss race and gender in certain ways. The law forbids them from saying, for example, that someone should feel discomfort or guilt because of their race or gender or that they're responsible for ugly episodes in history committed by someone of their same race or gender.

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STITT: We can and should teach this history without labeling a young child as an oppressor or requiring he or she feel guilt or shame based on their race or sex.

FLORIDO: These are things that Telannia Norfar says teachers in Oklahoma do not do, which is why this law makes no sense to her. And yet in recent weeks, Republicans have passed or drafted similar laws in other states - Idaho, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas. Their authors say they're taking aim at the teaching of critical race theory. It's an academic approach that examines how race functions in society. Conservatives have made critical race theory a rallying cry in the culture wars, claiming it stokes division and animosity by forcing people to see race everywhere. President Trump was its loudest critic.

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DONALD TRUMP: Critical race theory is being forced into our children's schools. It's being imposed into workplace trainings, and it's being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors and families.

FLORIDO: Conservative activist groups have also taken up the cause. This video is from parents defending education.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I want my child to learn how to think, not what to think. But in K-12 schools today, activists are pushing a radical new agenda. Instead of creating educated individuals, they are trying to create activists, turning blank slates into members of racial, ethnic or gender groups in conflict with each other. But it doesn't have to be...

FLORIDO: But many educators say these lines of attack and these new laws stemming from them are an attempt to whitewash history by intimidating school teachers into avoiding important conversations about race at a critical time. Paula Lewis chairs the Oklahoma City School Board, which condemned the state's new law.

PAULA LEWIS: It puts fear in our teachers that, what if they say the wrong thing? What if somebody in their class during the critical thinking brings up the word oppression or systemic racism? And are they in danger? Is their job in danger?

FLORIDO: She says conversations about racism in our past and present can be uncomfortable, especially for white people. But that's OK.

LEWIS: It's not my son's fault. It's not my fault what happened 110 years ago. But it is my responsibility to help us look at that, learn from that and really try to acknowledge and atone.

FLORIDO: She says many Oklahoma teachers are eager to bring those principles into their lessons on this year's hundredth anniversary of the race massacre in Tulsa, when hundreds of the city's Black residents were killed by white mobs. Now she has doubts about how effective those lessons can be.

There are similar concerns in other states. In Texas, House Bill 3979 would also ban lessons that cause students to feel discomfort, guilt or distress on account of their race or sex. And it would ban mandatory diversity trainings at public schools and colleges. The bill's author, Republican Steve Toth, has railed against critical race theory as unpatriotic. Vida Robertson directs the Center for Critical Race Studies at the University of Houston downtown.

VIDA ROBERTSON: House Bill 3979 is a coordinated attempt by Republicans to stifle a widespread and overwhelming demand for racial equality and social justice by mischaracterizing critical race theory as some, you know, abhorrent plot to undermine America.

FLORIDO: He says if this bill is signed into law, parents who are also uncomfortable with the nation's current racial reckoning will have a tool to go after teachers. Meghan Dougherty helps social studies teachers in Round Rock, Texas, develop lesson plans. She said recently, a teacher she works with was presenting a virtual lesson about the effects of race and prejudice in American society. A father at home overheard part of the lesson.

MEGHAN DOUGHERTY: Then he wrote an email to the administration complaining that the teacher was accusing his child of being a racist when they were having a conversation about implicit bias and what implicit bias is and how it affects us.

FLORIDO: She says it feels like the thought police are descending on Texas.

DOUGHERTY: Already, I have teachers that I talk to that are afraid to speak out on issues because they feel like they're going to get repercussions from their districts.

FLORIDO: Paul Kleiman is a high school history teacher in Round Rock. What should he make, he asks, of the part of the Texas bill that would require him to teach ugly chapters in history by exploring all sides without giving any one side deference? What about the Holocaust, he asks, or the civil rights movement or Indian removal?

PAUL KLEIMAN: Does the state of Texas want me to stand up and spend class time saying, well, let's look at all sides of this topic? I don't think that's what the state of Texas wants. But, you know, that's what this bill does.

FLORIDO: He says he'll be forced, if this bill becomes law, to choose between his professional obligation to his students and breaking the law.

Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.