Georgia senators pass controversial classroom ‘divisive concepts’ bill

By: - March 13, 2022 12:08 pm

Teacher with students, in a classroom. Credit: Getty Images.

The Georgia Senate passed a bill along party lines Friday that would prevent teachers from discussing so-called divisive concepts about race in the United States.

The bill, which passed 32-20, now heads to the House, which passed a similar bill last week. That House bill will be up for Senate consideration.

If either one becomes law, nine specific viewpoints will be banned from classrooms, including that one race is superior to another, that the United States or Georgia are systematically racist or that any person should feel distressed or guilty because of their skin color.

The bill’s author, Cornelia Republican Sen. Bo Hatchett, said Senate Bill 377 will not prevent the teaching of shameful moments in history, but only prevent teachers from placing blame on impressionable students.

“The point of this is right now a teacher should not be able to teach that the United States or the state of Georgia, today, as a whole, is racist,” he said. “Now, there’s redlining rules, Jim Crow laws, those are things that happened in the past, and those are things that should be brought up. But today, a teacher cannot say that the United States of America or the state of Georgia are fundamentally or systemically racist.”

Democrats painted a different picture.

Atlanta Democratic Sen. Elena Parent called the bill “a jumble of words cut and pasted from the Heritage Foundation and a Trump executive order.”

Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, said it is a reaction to the racial justice protests following the killings of Black Americans including George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.

“Institutions and schools took a hard look at their policies and began to adopt new curriculum, training and commitments to confront and dismantle racism,” she said. “This provoked a backlash among far-right activists, and policy makers, and Senate Bill 377 is a direct product of that backlash. In other words, society is attempting, through hard conversations, and a struggle to reckon with racism in the past, and in the present. Reckonings aren’t always pretty. Some people would just rather avoid the mess. Some people don’t want that reckoning to occur at all.”

Cataula Republican Sen. Randy Robertson, author of a bill clamping down on protests, pointed to a different origin. Robertson said “anti-American” protesters during the Vietnam War exported their ideology into college classrooms.

“And once they had saturated our colleges and universities with it, they needed another place to go, so they took it down into our high schools, and eventually our elementary schools,” he said. “This is nothing new.”

A previous version of the bill included colleges and universities, but that language was stripped following concerns about academic freedom, Republicans said.

Gov. Brian Kemp has listed legislating against so-called critical race theory as a priority for this year’s session, and similar measures have been popping up across state legislatures despite the fact that teachers say the theory does not come up in classrooms.

Hatchett declined to answer when asked whether the bill addresses a specific problem in Georgia schools.

“Since the very beginning, that’s been one of the biggest questions that I’ve gotten is, where’s the proof? Where do you see this?” he said. “But I’ll tell you, one of the things that was shocking and alarming to me throughout this process based on internet, emails, comments on social media, is there are people who criticize this bill and say that these divisive concepts should be taught, and the fact that that rhetoric is out there and the fact that there’s .01% of the population that believe those divisive concepts should be taught in our schools is argument for why this bill is right and why it is an appropriate time to bring this piece of legislation forward.”

Other Republicans like Macon Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert expressed shock at the idea that someone might believe America has a problem with systemic racism.

“I’m intrigued by this argument that America or the state of Georgia has systemic laws that are racially discriminatory,” he said. “Are you aware of any laws that are racially discriminatory? I’m thinking of the Voting Rights Act, which specifically protects racial minorities from unfair treatment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I mean back for the last 60 years now, it seems to me that our country has more laws preventing any kind of racial discrimination then creating a system or a legal framework for discrimination.”

Democrats said those laws were passed in response to the civil rights movement to curb systemic racism and are not proof that it is no longer a problem. Others raised Georgia’s teacher shortage and argued that the bill allows peeved parents to cause further headaches with official complaints.

Democratic Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat, said the bill’s vagueness could land teachers in hot water.

Few would argue that the United States and Georgia were systematically racist during the height of slavery, but it’s not clear when it stops being OK to say the country had a race problem.

“When do I have to cut off the time?” he said. “So, the teacher says ‘The United States of America and Georgia was at one time discriminatory,’ when do they have to cut it off? Does it have to be 1965, is it 1945? Does it have to be 1985? Does it have to be 2000? What year do they have to cut it off to come within the rubric of this particular statute? And at that point in time, you have a complete restriction on speech.”

Hatchett pushed back on the Democratic arguments, saying the bill only restricts teachers from placing blame on current students.

“We can teach them these hard lessons, but at the end of the day, what this bill says is that a teacher should not tell a child that because of their race, skin color or ethnicity, that they should feel guilty, that it is their fault,” he said. “This bill allows history to be taught, but what it doesn’t allow is for a teacher to then say because of this history and because of the color of your skin, you should feel this way.”

Democratic Sen. Nikki Merritt of Grayson was not convinced. She told her fellow lawmakers about her grandmother who lived through Jim Crow and her uncle who participated in student protests. She said she fears the bill will tell children like hers that their family history is not worth learning about in school.

“I know these conversations, they’re hard to hear. It’s hard for me to hear. But it is our history. Whether we like it or not, this is a part of America, the United States, the South. And there’s nothing wrong with talking about accurate history. It’s facing the truth in history, that’s what we’re talking about. That’s part of truth, and it’s supposed to make us uncomfortable. It’s supposed to elicit a feeling. It’s supposed to make us feel disgusted. And it’s supposed to do that so we don’t repeat history, that we learn to become better humans, and we learn how to treat each other better.”

This story was published earlier by the Georgia Recorder, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom, which includes the Florida Phoenix.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University. The Florida Phoenix is a sister media outlet to the Georgia Recorder. Both outlets are part of the nonprofit States Newsroom.