PHOENIX — A House panel voted 6-4 Tuesday along party lines to make teaching about racism illegal if it is done in certain ways.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, said her proposal is not an effort to block students from being told about the history of racism in this country, whether it be slavery or how Native Americans were forced from their homes.
“It simply means that judging others by their race, ethnicity or sex is unacceptable,” she told members of the House Education Committee which she chairs.
“It will not be tolerated in our schools in any way, shape or form, even if it is introduced to combat racism,” Udall continued. “We cannot combat racism with more racism.”
Udall cited some real-world examples of what she is trying to prevent, like a seventh grade English class in Chandler reading an essay entitled “Black Men in Public Places.” That dealt with a 6-foot, 2-inch Black man walking at night in a military style jacket with his hands in his pockets.
“A woman out walking was frightened and sought to put distance between them,” Udall said. “The essay fully attributes her fear to his skin color rather than considering a woman walking alone at night might be afraid of anyone of that size.”
But the wording of the measure drew questions about exactly what teachers could and could not say about the legacy of racism — and what could result in the loss of their teaching certificates.
As crafted, HB 2112 would make it illegal for schools to teach that one race, ethnic group or sex is “inherently morally or intellectually superior to another race, ethic group or sex.”
Also illegal would be teaching that someone, by virtue of the race, ethnicity or sex is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” And it would ban any instruction that someone's individual moral character is determined by that person's race, ethnicity or sex.
But the potentially more problematic language goes to whether teaching about the history of racism in this country would cross a line that forbids teaching that individuals, based on race, ethnicity or sex, should “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of that race, ethnicity or sex.” And there is similar language saying that students cannot be taught that, based on race, ethnicity or sex, bear responsibility for actions committed by others from the same group.
Teachers who violate the law could have their teaching certificate suspended or revoked. And school districts would face $5,000 fines for each violation.
Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, who is a primary school teacher, said she worries what will happen if a history lesson happens to make a student uncomfortable.
“That wasn’t my intent,” she said. “But if somebody has a feeling like, ‘Oh my goodness, I didn’t know it happens,’ it makes a first grader sad, will the teacher lose their teaching credentials? Will the school be fined?”
Udall, however, said it comes down to intent.
“If you read it closely, it says that a teacher should not be teaching that an individual ‘should’ feel discomfort, feel anguish or other form of psychological distress because of the individual's race, ethnicity or sex,” she said. More to the point, Udall said, teachers should teach that students are responsible for their own actions, “not for what happened in history.”
Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said it isn’t that simple.
For example, he said, there might be a discussion of the Fair Housing Act, the 1968 federal law designed to prevent discrimination in the ability of people to be able to buy and rent homes and apartments, something that can be taught as a matter of history. But Bolding said lessons go beyond those bare facts.
“A student might ask, ‘Why?’ or “How?’” he said. “And that’s when you start to have deeper discussion of why you needed a Fair Housing Act of 1968.”
Ditto, Bolding said, of what happens when children seek to know about the treatment of Native Americans.
“How do we expect our teachers to navigate questions around the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of history if they can’t mention race?” he asked. “And if they mention race, as Ms. Pawlik mentioned, someone may feel uncomfortable.”
Udall, however, insisted that nothing in her measure would interfere with that.
“You can’t say, for example, that Blacks weren’t allowed housing and say, ‘All white people are this or that,’ Udall said. “It is the difference between talking about the actions versus talking about them as a whole race.”
But Bolding said that still doesn’t address the question of teachers being to explain to children why the law was needed in the first place.
Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, said the lines are not as clear as Udall and her legislation make them out to be.
Consider, she said, the story of Ruby Bridges who was the first African-American child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in Louisiana in 1960.
“The book depicts a lot of white people screaming and yelling at her and being mean to her,” Schwiebert said. “A whole group of people want to say that shouldn’t be taught in classrooms.”
But Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, said there’s a larger issue that is being lost while lawmakers debate exactly how certain history can be taught.
“We’ve lost all semblance of intellect and reality when we’re teaching our kids about social issues and things of that nature, and not the things that are going to make them a value to the state of Arizona and the workforce,” he said.
In fact, Fillmore said he doesn’t think the bill goes far enough.
He said that there should be mandatory penalties against teachers who violate the law — not some punishment left up to the state Board of Education. And Fillmore sniffed at the $5,000 fines for school districts “is not even a nickel; it’s a penny in comparison to their budgets.”
And he even took a bit of a slap at Udall who is running for state school superintendent.
“This is nothing more than a get-elected bill under someone’s name for any office that they might be running,” Fillmore said. “And it really doesn’t accomplish anything.”
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