Conservatives around the country have been twisting themselves in knots over “critical race theory” for a year-and-a-half now, even though very few of them actually know what it is. As I described in a column last year, CRT is a concept taught in law schools and grad schools, and sometimes in upper division college courses, that examines the way race and the law have been intertwined in U.S. history. Practically no one outside those classes had ever even heard of the term until the fall of 2020 when then-president Trump happened to see someone complaining about it on Fox News and decided the next day to issue an order to ban it in all government training and encouraging his supporters to try to ban it outright. Just a week or two ago, he was telling people to lay down their very lives to stop it.
From that moment on, his supporters have been obsessing about both that theoretical approach and the New York Times “1619 project,” which focuses on the foundational role of slavery in early U.S. history (and, by implication, the role racism has played since). Most people upset about the very existence of these historical perspectives have conflated a whole bunch of things under one umbrella - all of them things which make some people uncomfortable to talk about or which make some white people feel like someone is trying to make them feel guilty or single them out for blame… concepts like white privilege, implicit or unconscious bias, and structural racism.
As a result, several red states have passed laws banning such concepts from being remotely approached in schools. Many of those state laws, from the outset, applied to both K-12 and college. When Tennessee passed such a law last year, though, it did not apply to higher education, only K-12. I figured it was only a matter of time until they went for the universities, and I was right. A bill doing so passed the state house of representatives at the beginning of this month, and passed the state senate on March 21st.
Like other such bills around the country, it does not specifically say “critical race theory” - no doubt because that is such a highly specialized approach that is actually only used in a small percentage of college classes - and has much broader language. It bans so-called “divisive concepts” like those I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago. It also includes anything that could make anyone “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress.” Talk about snowflakes. Of course, any frank and honest discussion of history can do all of those things, and probably should. It also bans anything that “promotes or advocates division between, or resentment of, a race, sex” or other group. How do you define promoting division or resentment? Many people would claim that simply talking honestly about racism could potentially do those things - so it should not be done.
According to this bill, soon to be law, any student who gets a bad grade on a paper or exam because they did not agree with what the professor is teaching (on an emotional, not a factual, level), can sue the professor. The professor could then be written up on the first offense and fired on the second, regardless of tenure. The senators favoring the bill did admit that, unlike K-12 teachers, professors are guaranteed academic freedom so they can’t be told what to say or teach… but they can face the aforementioned consequences if they do, which make the point moot.
The intent of this bill is to frighten professors into avoiding any frank and honest discussions about race and gender… or, as one senator said, to make sure they give a more “balanced” view of slavery and the Trail of Tears. It will backfire, as it cannot hold up in court. And, believe me, that’s where it’s going.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU. Although, in this case, they do represent the view of the entire history department.
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