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Earlier today, Wisconsin Republicans in the legislature announced that they had introduced legislation to ban the teaching of critical race theory in Wisconsin schools. According to Representative Gae Magnafici, a Republican from Amery, the bills would prevent the teaching of divisive ideas.
“Controversial topics are welcome,” said Magnafici. “Our schools and higher-education institutions are places that should cultivate diversity of thought. Curriculum that is divisive has no place in our schools.”
The bills would prevent public schools, including the UW system and state technical colleges, from teaching that racism is inherent in social structures, such as the legal system. It would also prevent local governments and state agencies from training employees in these same ideas, and would withhold state aid and funding from agencies that violate these laws.
Critical race theory is not new – it arose in the 1970s as a way of thinking about racism that says racism is not just about individual actions, but also about structural issues. But the idea has reached mainstream consciousness, with projects like the New York Times 1619 Project – a long-form journalism project re-contextualizing the ways slavery shaped the United States – coming under fire from Republican politicians and even former president Trump.
In the last few months, several other states — Arkansas, Idaho, Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma — have all passed bans on teaching critical race theory in public schools, including in some public colleges.
Kevin Lawrence Henry is a professor in the UW-Madison Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis. He says critical race theory it is not usually taught in schools below the college level — and that it is primarily applied within specific fields.
“Most critical race theory courses developed in law schools,” said Henry. “These were approaches to help lawyers understand how race was operating in the law. So critical race theory started in law schools, in professional schools, and it increasingly moved to graduate programs and sociology and education and public health to help individuals that are both practitioners as well as those that would like to be researchers understand how racial disparities were operating in their particular endeavors or their particular field.”
Henry says that he believes critical race theory is important to help America deal with racism.
But some of the supporters who spoke in favor of the bill consider critical race theory to be divisive, and argue that the ideas espoused in it encourage discrimination against people of color. Monica Wickers, a black woman from Madison, says that she fears her children are being taught to think less of themselves because of their race.
“Now my children are being made to think of themselves as perpetual victims and to think of the white race as perpetual oppressors,” said Wickers. “This isn’t right. As a veteran of the United States army, I served to uphold and defend the principles that his bill promotes. My achievements, honor graduate in basic training, my efforts in the Gulf War, and my honorable discharge, are a reflection of my individual efforts and sacrifice. Not given to me due to my race.”
House Speaker Robin Vos said earlier today that he hadn’t read the bills, but said that the state should make sure people aren’t being taught that one race is superior to another race, but that is not what critical race theory is.
Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor issued a statement saying that the bills would strip school boards of local control, though a spokesperson for the Republican legislature denied the bills would do that. UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch says that the UW system was looking through the bills to see their impact. Representative Lakeshia Myers, a Democrat from Milwaukee, said that the bills are broad, and could restrict the teaching of historical events such as black people winning the right to vote. Henry agrees.
“Because it’s such a sweeping statement-something that catches all these things-I think the concern that we should have as citizens is a question about how do we teach history,” said Henry. “So what can be included within critical race theory, as it’s understood by conservative legislatures, would be almost anything ranging from slavery and enslavement, to segregation, to redlining, to the Chinese Exclusion Act, to any of these events that have taken place in history that would almost be muzzled and denied.”
The bills are currently circulating for co-sponsorship, and no vote on the bills are yet scheduled.