An Oklahoma state lawmaker is seeking to ban teaching “divisive concepts” from critical race theory in state schools, pushing a for a law that would permit teachers to be fired for doing so.
State Sen. Shane Jett (R) is the author of Senate Bill 803, legislation that would explicitly prohibit the teaching of critical race theory and its components in the state of Oklahoma. In an interview with TheBlaze Wednesday, Jett said that while proponents of critical race theory promise to improve race relations, what’s being taught in schools actually creates a racial divide.
“It’s teaching divisive concepts and ideology to young people,” Jett told TheBlaze. “It is Marxist in origin and it’s designed to cause children to, instead of looking at what makes us unique and special and American, it causes them to pit themselves against each other based on the color of their skin.”
Jett’s bill prohibits Oklahoma public schools and public charter schools, starting from kindergarten to high school, from “teaching, instructing or training” any student to believe in “divisive concepts.”
Divisive concepts as defined in the legislation would, for example, promote the idea that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” or that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist.” Schools would not be allowed to teach that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” or that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.”
Other “divisive concepts” include the idea that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” or that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.”
“The fundamental equality that is part of the American ideal is what we’re trying to underscore here,” Jett said.
Opponents of the bill accuse Jett of wanting to silence conversations about race in public schools.
“It was racially insensitive I thought. It was not a well-written bill; it seems like it said we don’t care and we are going to say these things,” Democratic state Sen. George Young said in an interview with KFOR.
“You are going to penalize teachers that teach the truth,” he charged.
Shannon Fleck, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, told KFOR that “race is an active issue” for people of color in Oklahoma.
“It’s offensive to all people in Oklahoma that conversations about racism are so divisive that they shouldn’t be happening. That’s the opposite of how to solve problems in our country and in our state,” she said.
Jett, a Cherokee American, strongly objected to critics who say his bill would punish teachers for discussing racial issues in schools.
“My wife is from Brazil, a third of her family down in Brazil would be considered people of color, and racism isn’t something that we tolerate,” Jett said. “I’m a Cherokee Indian. My mom is Cherokee, my dad is Irish. And so we talk about things that happen in the past honestly, engaged, hard-hitting. How do we fix it? How do we make sure it doesn’t happen in the future?”
But critical race theory, in Jett’s view, teaches some American children that they are oppressed and that their classmates with a different skin color are the oppressors.
“Instead of teaching equality and harmony and celebrating our progress in American history, this experiment in freedom, they are instead telling children to forget that. The very foundation of the American government is flawed, is racist. And if you’re white, you are by definition a racist and you don’t even know it. And if you’re a person of color, then you are oppressed and you’ve been victimized. And it’s by the other side of the classroom who are white, they have done it and their ancestors,” Jett said.
“They are literally teaching animosity,” he continued, characterizing the tenets of critical race theory as child abuse. “The bill basically says you can no longer do this. You cannot abuse public school kids at taxpayers’ expense and try to get them to distrust each other, distrust American history and then completely rewrite our history.”
By introducing his bill, Jett said he wants to have a dialogue and honest debate about race in America “in the context of truth and not in the context of a Marxist ideology that completely ignores the tremendous progress that this society has made.”
Critical Race Theory
Jett’s legislation is a direct repudiation of popular concepts in academia collectively known as critical race theory. CRT is a worldview that claims most laws and systems in America were historically rooted in the racist oppression of black people and other marginalized groups. It began as a legal movement in the 1970s in response to perceptions that progress made by the civil rights movement was insufficient. Among its influences are Marxism, post-modernism, radical feminism, and other schools of leftist political and cultural thought.
As defined by University of Alabama law professor Richard Delgado and his wife Jean Stefancic in their book, “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” CRT is “a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power.”
“Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law,” they wrote.
According to this worldview, racism in the United States is structural. America’s laws, institutions, and cultural representations are viewed to work together in ways that perpetuate racial inequity, or the unequal distribution of society’s benefits or burdens based on skin color. “White privilege” is the historical and contemporary advantage supposedly shared by people with a fair skin color, their access to society’s benefits and shielding from society’s burdens. American national values like individualism, individual responsibility, meritocracy, fairness, or equal treatment are said to ignore the realities of structural racism tell a lie that anyone in this country can make whatever they want of themselves, regardless of what they look like or where they come from.
This worldview has found widespread acceptance in academia and became mainstream in American politics and news media following racial unrest nationwide after the death of George Floyd in police custody and subsequent violent protests by the Black Lives Matter movement.
The New York Times’ controversial “1619 Project,” which sought to reframe American history “understanding 1619,” the year the first African slaves were brought to America, “as our true founding,” is one example of critical race theory’s widespread influence.
Another recent example is the controversy involving Coca-Cola, in which an employee claimed racial sensitivity training used a course called “Confronting Racism” that taught employees “to be less white.” The training stated that “To be less white is to:” “be less oppressive,” “be less arrogant,” “be less certain,” “be less defensive,” “be less ignorant,” “be more humble,” “listen,” “believe,” “break with apathy,” and to “break with white solidarity.”
Aspects and assumptions of “whiteness,” as explained by a publication from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture that went viral on social media, include ideas like “self-reliance,” “the nuclear family,” emphasis on the scientific method, “the primacy of Western (Greek, Roman) and Judeo-Christian tradition,” the Protestant work ethic, “Christianity,” “rigid time schedules,” and more.
This is all derivative of critical race theory.
Believers, proponents, and defenders of CRT argue the worldview helps identify areas where racial inequities exist and give policy makers and educators the tools to correct longstanding injustices.
“It’s an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it,” scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw told Time last September. Crenshaw is one of the founding scholars of critical race theory.
But principles of CRT have been applied to make claims of structural oppression of other groups based on sexuality, gender, class, and disability.
“What critical race theory has done is lift up the racial gaze of America,” said John Powell, the director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at the UC Berkeley. “It doesn’t stay within law, it basically says ‘look critically at any text or perspective and try to understand different perspectives that are sometimes drowned out.'”
Teaching CRT in schools
Critical race theory is not only taught at the university level. A survey taken after George Floyd’s death found that 81% of U.S. teachers support Black Lives Matter, with public schools in response seeking ways to “revamp” their history curriculums to focus on racial equity. Several U.S. schools had adopted curricula that uses the New York Times’ 1619 Project to teach American history with a focus on the legacy of slavery.
The public school system in Buffalo, New York, for example, has adopted a “woke” curriculum that involves showing kindergarteners a dramatized video of dead black children speaking to them from the grave about the dangers of being killed by “racist police and state-sanctioned violence.”
The mainstream promotion of critical race theory among the progressive left has inspired pushback from conservatives like Jett and other critics who say the theory distorts American history and promotes racist thinking. Former President Donald Trump denounced CRT as a “Marxist doctrine” that teaches that “America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression.” In an executive order, Trump banned the use of critical race theory as a part of diversity training in the federal government. President Joe Biden has since reversed Trump’s policy.
Jett’s bill would not ban discussions of racism, or significant historic events like the institution of slavery or the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, the single worst incident of racial violence in America. Instead, he hopes that school discussions on racial issues will occur as an honest dialogue about how people were wronged in the past, the progress America has made to correct those wrongs, and how America can continue to repudiate racism in the future instead of a blanket worldview that claims racism is inherent in white people.
“We are making tremendous progress,” Jett told TheBlaze. “I can see it in my military unit. I served 11 years as a Navy intelligence officer in the United States Navy. We were the complete spectrum of the rainbow, but guess what? We weren’t looking at the color of our skin. What we were looking at is making sure our warfighters overseas had the material that they needed, the information they needed so they could get home to their families, American families.”
He observed that the prevalence of discussions about critical race theory in America is itself evidence that America has made racial progress and that people are willing to have this debate.
“We are looking to have an honest conversation. We’re looking to make this a more perfect union, right? But what they promise and what they deliver are completely two different things. They say we’re gonna have a great discussion, we’re going to improve. But then when you start drilling down to what they’re actually teaching, they’re ignoring or even whitewashing, dare I say, our history and then telling us that we are fundamentally racist for being the color that we were born and that people of color are victims of those who are white.”
Senate Bill 803 has been assigned to the Education Committee in the state Senate, and while the bill has been endorsed by state House Speaker Charles McCall (R), Jett indicated that some Republican leaders on the committee were hesitant to advance his legislation.
“There’s a reluctance to take a stand on this because we get called a racist for wanting to have an honest dialogue,” Jett said. “I felt like someone needed to do something, and so I did.”