A House committee voted 6-4 on January 18 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, they 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 about what will happen if a history lesson happens to make a student uncomfortable.
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.”
House Minority Leader 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 did you need 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.”