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Mississippi governor claims ‘critical race theory’ used to ‘humiliate and indoctrinate’ students

The Independent logo The Independent 3/15/2022 Alex Woodward
Tate Reeves © AP Tate Reeves

Mississippi has the largest population of Black Americans of any state in the US, with a civil rights history central to the nation’s story.

On 14 March, Republican Governor Tate Reeves signed a bill into law that would ban classroom lessons that he says are used to “humiliate” white students who are “force-fed an unhealthy dose of progressive fundamentalism that runs counter to the principles of America’s founding.”

Senate Bill 2113 – which includes “critical race theory” in its title but does not define or describe it – prohibits schools from teaching or affirming that “any sex, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin is inherently superior or inferior.” But Republican state legislators have argued that schools should not teach students about the enduring impacts of enslavement and racism, none of which is in the bill, and have struggled to define the phrase in the bill’s title.

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“I can almost guarantee what will happen next,” Governor Reeves said on Monday. “First, critical race theory proponents will claim that this law prevents the teaching of history. They’ll claim that our kids won’t learn about important historical events like slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. But we know the truth. Contrary to what some critics claim, this bill in no way, in no shape and in no form prohibits the teaching of history.”

The text of the bill as written does not prohibit those things, but civil rights groups and opponents of the measure warn that the law will chill and disrupt classroom instruction on history rather than promote accurate discussions about it.

“When politicians support legislation like Senate Bill 2113, they overstep their authority and get in the way of the teachers and their students,” the ACLU of Mississippi said in a statement. “There’s no telling how this legislation could open the door for future interference and classroom censorship.”

When the bill passed the GOP-controlled state Senate in January, every Black senator withheld their vote and walked out in protest.

That month, Republican state senator Michael McLendon said he was not aware of critical race theory being taught in any Mississippi schools, but “I did have enough constituents that were concerned over this, over national news – and I know you can take national news with a grain of salt – but there were so many issues and concerns that people had about this.”

Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said critical race theory is not taught in the state’s schools.

The law is “broad, vague and allows the state to strip funding from schools for violating it,” according to Yvette Butler, a University of Mississippi law school professor who teaches the only elective class on critical race theory in the state.

“Educators need to teach about the past and the present,” she said. “Students are perceptive. They see things like melanated kids wearing hoodies being pushed against walls by teachers. They see a high police presence [in neighborhoods with Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour]. They experience generational poverty because their (families) have always lived in a segregated neighborhood where the Federal Housing Administration refused to insure mortgages.”

She added: “But the history isn’t all bad. Progress wasn’t made by black people alone. There are stories to be told about collaboration and allyship and resilience and joy. But we cannot sanitize the story just because it makes people uncomfortable.”

More than a dozen states have passed similar laws aimed at “critical race theory,” invoking a largely obscure academic framework to address the legacy of slavery and racism in institutions. It is not a part of K-12 curriculums.

Though many measures do not directly name the theory, it has been invoked by Republican officials and used as a catch-all term from right-wing media and criticism of concepts like The 1619 Project following a campaign from conservative activists aided by dozens of newly formed local and national groups to raise the issue at school board meetings and in state legislatures.

“In too many schools around the US, [critical race theory] is running amok,” Governor Reeves wrote on social media with a video statement announcing his signature on the bill. “It threatens the integrity of education [and] aims only to humiliate and indoctrinate.”

“Any claim that this bill will somehow stop Mississippi kids from learning about American History is just flat out wrong,” he said in his statement. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – all elements of Mississippi and all elements of American history – both the good and the bad should be taught in our schools. Period.”

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