Education

Several Kentucky state lawmakers have introduced legislation to limit discussions of race in the classroom, following in the footsteps of other conservative state legislatures

While the bills don’t explicitly mention “critical race theory,” their sponsors have name-checked the concept in press releases. But experts say most of the topics the bills ban are not part of the academic theory, and teachers say it could have real impacts in the classroom.

What The Bills Say

Republicans have filed two bill requests ahead of the next legislative session, purportedly targeting critical race theory.  Here are some of concepts teachers or college professors would be forbidden from discussing, promoting or including in curriculum or instructional materials:

  1. One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex
  2. An individual, by virtue or his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously
  3. An individual’s moral character is determined by his or her race or sex
  4. An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex
  5. The Commonwealth of the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist

Under Fort Thomas Republican Rep. Joe Fischer’s bill, teachers in K-12 public schools could face disciplinary action, and school districts could be fined thousands of dollars. Under a bill from Nicholasville Republican Matt Lockett and Waddy Republican Jennifer Henson Decker, the restrictions would apply to public colleges and universities. 

“Those are tenets that we as parents and as Kentuckians do not want in our schools,” Lockett told WFPL. 

But experts who study critical race theory say many of the concepts listed in the bills are not part of the framework. And teachers say they’re not teaching these concepts or critical race theory in K-12 schools. Critics say lawmakers are creating a “fake debate” to limit discussions of systemic racism and signal loyalty to the base of former President Donald Trump.

What Is Critical Race Theory?

The origins of critical race theory can be traced to a group of legal scholars in the 1980s. Many of them were from Harvard University; most were scholars of color. They argued that legal institutions are intertwined with politics and white supremacy.

“Law constructed race,” write the authors of Critical Race Theory: Essential Writings That Formed the Movement. “Racial power, in our view, was not simply—or even primarily—a product of biased decision-making on the part of judges, but instead, the sum total of the pervasive ways in which law shapes and is shaped by ‘race relations’ across the social plane.”

University of Louisville Pan-African Studies Professor Kalasia Ojeh told WFPL critical race theory frames race as “part of the everyday fabric of life.”

“And when we begin to understand that, we can see how race isn’t something that is … inherent, essential, biological—but it’s something that is socially constructed,” she said.

“It’s a critique of systemic racism,” University of Kentucky history professor Nikki Brown said. She said she was speaking personally and not on behalf of her department or university.

“What it tries to do is say that racism exists and racism is maintained as a structure beyond what people do and think individually.”

Where Did These Bills Come From?

The bills, and others like them across the country, come at a time when more Americans are becoming familiar with the concept of systemic racism, following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. 

Organizations, including school systems, are ramping up diversity and equity training in response to calls for racial justice. Some districts, including Jefferson County Public Schools, are trying to make their curriculum more culturally inclusive. The Biden Administration is promoting that sort of curriculum as well. Now, the push for diversity training and inclusivity in education is facing a backlash, according to Eric Ward at the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center. 

“No good deed goes unpunished,” Ward said. 

He believes the conservative focus on critical race theory is strategic. National conservative talk show hosts are railing against critical race theory as “divisive,” and “anti-American.”

“They’ve taken a label that most people are unfamiliar with, and have then labelled it over every conversation on racial equity,” Ward said. 

“It’s the classic straw-man argument,” Tulane University history professor Laura Rosanne Adderley said. She fought the passage of a similar bill in Louisiana earlier this year.

“They’re painting a caricature of professors and fifth grade teachers standing up there, and ordering people to feel bad about stuff,” she said. “That’s not how it works.”

Rep. Lockett told WFPL News he had heard from parents and teachers that schools were being forced to teach students that they are “inherently oppressive” based on their race, or “inherently oppressed.” But he would not provide any specific examples for WFPL to fact-check.

Most of the text in both bills comes directly from a now-defunct 2020 executive order from Donald Trump limiting diversity training in federal agencies.

Ward, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said he believes the lawmakers are signaling their loyalty to Trump and his base by filing the bills. UK history professor Nikki Brown agrees, noting that Trump gathered support using racist and sexist rhetoric.

“It’s an attempt to kind of get people ginned up again about racial issues, and that sense that the liberal left is coming for the schools,” she said.

Sponsors, like Lockett, assert their bill is representative of critical race theory, and they don’t want teachers telling Black students that their skin color will hold them back. 

What Would Be The Impact In The Classroom?

While most Kentucky teachers at the K-12 level are not teaching critical race theory, many do teach students about systemic racism. 

“It’s super important to have these realizations, these revelations, at a young age,” Doss High School social studies teacher Roya Fathalizadeh said. “It’s not ‘indoctrinating students.’” 

Fathalizadeh worries the bills could limit those discussions, and even keep her from teaching lessons about the darker parts of U.S. history, like slavery or imperialism.

One idea Fischer’s bill would ban is the concept that “The Commonwealth or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.”

Waddy Republican Rep. Jennifer Henson Decker, who filed the other bill with Lockett, said she’s not trying to limit the teaching of history. 

“The facts of history should speak for themselves. The facts of history should be presented … the whole gorey story of slavery should be accurately presented,” she said.

In Knox County Schools, 10th grade social studies teacher Christina Trosper worries she’ll no longer be able to teach the text “White Man’s Burden.” The 1899 poem by Rudyard Kipling shows how white supremacist beliefs were used to justify American and European imperialism. Trosper says her students are “disgusted” every year when they read it, but that it’s an important text to understand racism’s role in shaping the world.

“All it takes is one parent to be upset and to file a complaint,” she said. 

Then after an investigation by the attorney general, she could lose her job under either of the Kentucky bills.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio worried the bills could make entire courses illegal, like the new elective the district is offering called “Developing Black Historical Consciousness.”

“[The bill] is designed to hamstring teaching the history of this country,” said Adderley, the history professor from Tulane, said. “And they are essentially saying that it is quote unquote, easier and better for us all if you tell a happy story,” she said.

The Kentucky General Assembly will consider both bills when lawmakers return to Frankfort in January.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.