A slave auction at the south, from an original sketch by Theodore R. Davis. Published 1861. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Coming off of a federal holiday recognizing the influence of Martin Luther King Jr., some Florida lawmakers are pushing legislation that could impose more barriers on how public school teachers can discuss racism in history classes.
In addition, the bill would involve Florida’s private businesses, which would prohibit employers from requiring employees to be subjected to certain trainings and discussions on race and sex.
While the bill language works to say that no person should be assumed racist or sexist based on race, critics worry that the bill limits academic freedom of teachers to talk about the history of racism in the United States and its continuing impacts, potentially continuing a troublesome trend.
On the business side, state Sen. Tina Polsky worries that the bill would limit the ability of business owners to run their own companies. “Why do we, as the government, need to be the thought police?” said Polsky, who is a Democrat and represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach Counties. “This is the most authoritarian bill.”
“I think this is just an attempt to chill important dialogue in both the classroom and the workplace,” Polsky said.
The bill sponsor, State Sen. Manny Diaz, said that the legislation would require instructors to “lay out the facts … both the dark parts in our history, that clearly exists, and the positive parts in our history,” at a Tuesday Senate Education Committee.
Diaz, a Republican who represents part of Miami-Dade County, said that the bill guards against “having one particular viewpoint imposed on the student.”
Among other changes, which would affect both public schools and Florida businesses, the bill says that instruction materials in the classroom must be consistent with the following principles of “individual freedoms:”
- “No individual is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex.”
- “No race is inherently superior to another race.”
- “No individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, disability, or sex.”
- “Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are not racist but fundamental to the right to pursue happiness and be rewarded for industry.”
- “An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.
- “An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”
The bill says that teachers can act as facilitators in discussions of racism and sexism but that “classroom instruction and curriculum may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view inconsistent” with the above principles.
But some lawmakers questioned if such events were even happening in Florida classrooms, and if not, what would the legislation be targeting.
Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat who represents part of Broward County, noted that there have not been instances of such assertions being taught in Florida classroom, and this bill instead would serve as “red meat” for the Republican base.
“Do we know of a scenario to where children have come home, or have made a complaint to the state to say that … ‘Because I’m white, my teacher said that I am more superior than my Black counterparts?'” Jones asked Diaz.
“I think a lot of us have heard from individual parents with concerns. And I think we need to guard against having that ever occur in our classrooms,” Diaz responded.
In debate on the bill, Jones worried that affects of the bill could distort uglier parts of American history, such as slavery and the Jim Crow laws.
“Yes, parents should know what their children are being taught. But at the same time, you cannot distort history,” Jones said. “We cannot turn from the facts, the things that happened. All this legislation is going to do is promote ignorance of race related content and other content that children should know about and children should have access to.”
“As me representing the African American community, as the only Black man here on Education, this [bill] is a problem,” he said. He is the only Black person serving on the Senate Education committee.
The legislation is a continuation of efforts by the Florida state government to dictate how race is discussed in the classroom. In December, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a proposal to allow parents to sue if their child is taught “critical race theory” in Florida public schools.
While the term originates in graduate levels of law school to discuss how the justice system perpetuates inequities among demographics and has several derivatives, Republican officials have used the misnomer of “critical race theory” to criticize a wide variety of activities examining the role of racism in American society.
In June, the Florida State Board of Education approved a new rule that prohibits critical race theory in classrooms, claiming that the theory “distorts historical events” and is “inconsistent” with the state board’s approved standards. The new rule also banned materials from The New York Times’ “1619 project,” which focuses the establishment of the United States from perspective of Black people.
Critics see these efforts as an attempt to chill and suppress frank discussions about the history of the Black experience in America, and that SB 148 continues such efforts.
Due to time restraint, public comments during the Tuesday committee meeting on the bill were limited to only one minute, and committee Chair Joe Gruters, a Republican who represents Sarasota County and part of Charlotte County, encouraged some speakers to waive their time if another speaker had already made their point. Gruters also is chair of the Republican Party of Florida.
Most comments were against the bill, and a couple were in favor.
Sen. Polsky thought the discussion was being rushed.
“I’m very disappointed that we’re rushing through this. … All of our constituents who came up — my constituent, seven hours to be here — got a minute to speak.”
Driving home her point, the committee could only devote three minutes to another race-related bill — one that could integrate Asian American and Pacific Islander history into Florida’s required instruction, along with existing requirements for curricula on African American history and the history of the Holocaust.
SB 490, sponsored by Sen. Linda Stewart, a Democrat who represents part of Orange County, quickly introduced the bill. Lawmakers did not ask questions or debate the bill.
There was time for just one speaker — Mimi Chan, a martial arts teacher in Central Florida who started a petition on Change.org to include Asian American history instruction in Florida’s K-12 schools. The online petition has 12,760 signatures.
The bill came as a response to an uptick in violence committed towards Asian Americans over the past year, including a mass shooting resulting in the death of eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent.
“Seeing a recent rise in Asian American violence has me concerned about the safety of my family and myself,” Chan said at the Tuesday committee meeting. “I believe the language of this bill acts as a preventative measure against future hate and is essential for public safety.”
She continued: “I have experienced being viewed as a foreigner even though I was born in this country. Passing SB 490 and encouraging inclusive history education would help fight this stereotype and improve the lives of Asian Americans in Florida. Especially for our children, who deserve a safe environment to learn and thrive.”
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