Guest Commentary: State Lawmakers Are Trying to Ban Talk about Race in Schools

Chairs with desks attached in an empty classroom. There are windows on the right and a chalkboard in the back.

A nationwide attempt to censor discussions of race in the classroom is underway. These bills don’t just set back progress in addressing systemic issues, they also rob young people of an inclusive education and blatantly suppress speech about race.

By Emerson Sykes and Sarah Hinger

A nationwide attempt to censor discussions of race in the classroom is underway. In recent weeks, Republican lawmakers across the country have proposed bills banning teaching “divisive concepts” in K-12 public schools and in public colleges and universities. The new bills target efforts to provide education about gender and race discrimination, including critical race theory, an academic concept and practice that recognizes systemic racism is deeply ingrained in American society and examines how our systems promote inequality. Now, state lawmakers are attempting to use these bills to bar educators from teaching critical race theory and related concepts like white privilege and racial equity in schools. These bills don’t just set back progress in addressing systemic issues, they also rob young people of an inclusive education and blatantly suppress speech about race. Some bills also target government contractors and agencies — inspired by an executive order issued by former President Trump — despite the fact that the EO was struck down in federal court and withdrawn by the Biden administration.

Just last week, Tennessee Republican lawmakers passed a bill to oppose critical race theory in schools, prohibiting educators from teaching specific concepts like white privilege. The governor of Idaho also recently signed a bill to ban critical race theory instruction in all public schools, including universities, claiming critical race theory “exacerbates and inflames divisions” in ways that are “contrary to the unity of the nation.” Some state lawmakers, such as in Louisiana, have similarly proposed bills banning these teachings under a similar guise, claiming these concepts are “divisive.” These bills mimic former President Trump’s order banning diversity training for federal entities and grantees that were deemed “divisive concepts” or “harmful ideologies.” The bills also draw on the 1776 commission report released by the Trump White House that experts have widely discredited and that President Biden rescinded upon taking office.

What these lawmakers claim are “harmful ideologies” are actually concepts used to educate individuals on systemic barriers and discrimination people of color and other marginalized groups still face in this country across our institutions. Imagine being a middle school history teacher and not being allowed to use concepts or terms like “systemic racism” to teach about slavery. Or being a college student in a political theory course and not being able to raise questions about white privilege. This is exactly what state lawmakers across the country are trying to make happen.

The recent Black Lives Matter movement has shown that people across the country fully acknowledge the realities of systemic racism are still alive and well, and the need to dismantle oppressive systems and pursue change is more important than ever. But rather than engage with these conversations taking place across the country, lawmakers seek to silence individuals, educators, and young people and impose an alternate version of American history — one that erases the legacy of discrimination and lived experiences of Black and Brown people, women and girls, and LGBTQ+ individuals. Our country needs to acknowledge its history of systemic racism and reckon with present day impacts of racial discrimination — this includes being able to teach and talk about these concepts in our schools.

Using these laws to prevent talk about racism is anathema to free speech— a right many conservative lawmakers claim to hold dear. The First Amendment protects the right to share ideas, including the right of listeners to receive information and knowledge. With respect to contractors and grantees, the Ninth Circuit held that the government cannot prohibit private entities from conducting anti-racism trainings just because they accept some public funding. State legislators would do well to heed this ruling. Likewise, in the university setting, principles of academic freedom protect a professor’s right to make teaching choices without government interference. And even with respect to K-12 education, where states generally have latitude to determine school curricula, these bills overstep the government’s legitimate authority. Instead of encouraging learning, the bills effectively gag educators and students from talking about issues of the most profound national importance, such as the impact of systemic racism in our society. This is a blatant attempt to suppress speech about race these lawmakers disfavor.

Banning conversations about race — and gender and sexuality — in schools also risks maintaining or creating education environments that are unwelcoming to students of color. Researchers and educators recognize that a school-wide approach involving education and training is necessary to combat harassment and bullying on the basis of race and gender. Laws banning conversations about race jeopardize this important work. Additionally, for students of color, the ability to learn about the experiences and viewpoints of people of color and America’s legacy of racism is critical to feeling connected and equally valued. Outlawing education about racism can alienate students of color from obtaining an education. It also harms the entire student body and risks sewing the very divisions claimed to be avoided. As the Supreme Court recognized in Brown v. Board of Education, “[e]ducation is the very foundation of good citizenship. … [I]t is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values.” A prohibition on talking about issues of race and racism is a disservice to all students and to society.

This is why it’s critical to protect educators and students’ rights to talk about race and gender in schools. All young people, especially students of color, deserve an inclusive education and the right to express themselves around issues such as race. These anti-critical race theory bills rob young people of an inclusive education and suppress speech about race, and now, it’s up to state governors across the country to veto these harmful bills.

Emerson Sykes and Sarah Hinger are staff attorneys with the ACLU.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Keith Olsen

    Let’s be honest here, this is more about the leftist indoctrination of our children in schools than it is about simply the “students’ rights to talk about race and gender”.  Good for these state lawmakers for taking a stand against this.

  2. Don Shor

    So conservative state legislators want to control what kind of curriculum local school boards can adopt. And conservative state legislators want to control what can be taught in colleges and universities.

    I suggest you think back on what we were taught about the way this country was created, what we were taught about the Constitution and the origins of the Civil War, and the way race relations were explained in our public schools. The metaphorical canonization of our founding fathers and the failure to acknowledge the fundamental inequities that were built into the system they created, along with wholesale revisionism about the Civil War and race relations thereafter, has led to a failure to accept how today’s conditions resulted from that long and sordid history.

    It isn’t “leftist indoctrination.” It’s an attempt at balance.

  3. Ron Oertel

    Teaching concepts like “white privilege” and “white fragility” are not an honest “talk about race” in schools. It is an agenda.

    And to some degree, so is teaching about gender identity. Though I’m not sure if that’s part of any official curriculum.


    1. Keith Olsen

      Correct Ron, what leftists are trying to introduce is totally one-sided and has nothing to do with “balance”.  I agree with Gov. Ron DeSantis, “There’s no room in our classrooms for things like Critical Race Theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.”

      1. Ron Oertel

        The “logical outcome” of this type of agenda can be seen in the San Francisco school board member’s comments regarding Asians, in which she said that Asians are using white supremacist thinking to get ahead (among other things that were said).

        And on a more basic (realistic) level, it’s also what’s leading to doing-away with merit-based enrollments at the city’s top public high school, doing-away with SAT scores to get into college, and any other “behind-the-scenes” (or “out-in-the-open”) methods used to force diversity.

        Still strange, however, that some don’t see the problem with the “Davis buyers” program, or whatever that is called.

  4. Alan Miller

    I was going to post my initial reaction to this article,

    Talk about the pot calling the kettle . . . !

    But then thought better of it  😐

    I’m no fan of the bans on teaching critical race theory, nor am I a fan of critical race theory.

    I’m fine if schools want to teach critical race as a theory.  But if that’s the only perspective being taught, then they are teaching critical race as fact.

    Not so much . . . {Borat}

    1. Ron Oertel

      Good point.

      I would think that there’s also an “age-appropriate” point at which to introduce controversial theories, which can easily be misconstrued.  And routinely are, even by adults.

      Especially since they tend to be taught by those promoting them in the first place.

      College might be the best place, as long as one is not essentially forced to accept the agenda to pass a required class. And for that matter, maybe other perspectives should consistently be included, as well.

      Or, you can tailor courses to actually facilitate job-seeking, which is ultimately the real reason to attend college, and to seek-out a supposedly “elite” college, at that. And don’t let anyone tell you any different (my “theory”, at least).

      But even then, this is not an “honest discussion about race” in schools.

      1. David Greenwald

        Is this actually controversial?  – “an academic concept and practice that recognizes systemic racism is deeply ingrained in American society and examines how our systems promote inequality”

        1. Ron Oertel


          Did you not know that?  🙂

          Somehow, I have a feeling that this could be “expanded” into a much lengthier discussion – beyond a 5-comment limit (having already used up most of them, as well).

          And truth be told, you probably should be engaging those who are outright opposed to it (who don’t comment on here, or even know about the Vanguard), unless you’ve written them all off as racists.

          1. David Greenwald

            Maybe my issue is: (1) it should not be and (2) that’s not a good reason to avoid the topic. I think we need more learning on thinggs like systemic racism, not less.

        2. Alan Miller

          Is this actually controversial?

          C’mon Greenwald!   Pretending to be woke-coy is not a pretty look.  Yeah #wink,wink#, critical race theory is widely accepted throughout the country #wink,wink#.  Taken as absolute fact everywhere.  Exactly as taught.

          Next you’ll be telling me to read “White Fragility”, even though I’m Jewish  😐

          “Not Controversial” is not the same as “In agreement with my views and therefore correct”.  It’s not even close.

          Now if the entire country suddenly became Berkeley, you might have a point.

          1. David Greenwald

            I think it might be more fruitful if we had an actual curriculum we could evaluate rather than speaking in the abstract.

        3. Alan Miller

          I think we need more learning on thinggs like systemic racism,

          “But to ask for evidence of systemic racism beyond mere inequality of outcome is to be complicit in systemic racism, according to the circular logic of systemic racism. Any incident of white-cop-on-black-suspect violence must be chalked up to the racist system; the evidence of the racist system is the presence of such violence in the first place; to deny that race lies at the root of such incidents makes you a cog in the racist system. The circular logic, protected by an enormous so-called Kafka trap — in which protestations of innocence are treated as proof of guilt — means that systemic racism is subject to no falsification.” — Ben Shapiro

          No Falsification, such as “not controversial”.


          6) Logic: Logic is racist because… I wish I could explain, but making a logical argument why logic is racist would just be perpetuating racism. –List of X

          1. David Greenwald

            Ben Shapiro is your source? And then you get indignant when you’re referred to as a conservative.

        4. Ron Oertel

          What do you think of the substance of the comment, itself?

          In short, that unequal outcomes are definitive evidence of systemic racism?

          If you think that way, there really isn’t room for any other analysis or conclusion.

        5. Alan Miller

          Ben Shapiro is your source?

          Only to annoy you.  Did I say I agreed with him ?

          And then you get indignant when you’re referred to as a conservative.

          Indignant?  No.  I laugh at you, the only person I know who has ever referred to me as a conservative (except for myself, and only as relative to Davis as a whole).

        6. David Greenwald

          Well Alan, the ACLU is a good source for a left-leaning civil libertarian.  Ben Shapiro is perhaps a good source, if you’re a conservative.  Right?

        7. Ron Oertel

          Perhaps this is a a case of, “there’s fine people – on both sides”.  🙂

          But yeah, Alan is probably just this side of Darth Vader. Definitely not as bad as that “Emperor”, but that entire side struck me as “conservative”.

  5. Edgar Wai

    In terms of prerequisites, a person needs to understand logic before they can understand science, and science before they can understand social science.

    I think in normal curriculum, “logic” as a subject is only required for computer science or philosophy in university. That is too late. Logic should be learned before learning scientific methods (experiments), arguably around when people learn about different kingdoms in biology (animals vs plants).

    Logic should also be learned before critical writing (writing essays), so that people already know about logical fallacies before they learn how to write essays.

  6. Alan Miller

    Well Alan, the ACLU is a good source for a left-leaning civil libertarian.  Ben Shapiro is perhaps a good source, if you’re a conservative.  Right?

    I can’t answer, so you’ll never know my response.  Sixth comment will self destruct in five seconds.  Good luck, Jim.

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