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Here's What You Need To Know About A Texas Bill That Aims To Ban Critical Race Theory

 A school bus on a residential street.
Keren Carrión
A school bus on a residential street.

In Texas and across the country, critical race theory has become a political lightning rod. Many Republican-led states are working to ban the school of thought from classrooms — even though teachers say they don’t even teach it.

This spring, Texas passed two laws taking aim at critical race theory, including House Bill 3979. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t think they went far enough, so he included critical race theory on the agenda for both special legislative sessions, including the one underway right now.

Educators say most people, including critics, don’t even know what critical race theory is.

Nikki Jones teaches African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Jones described critical race theory as a way to understand how race influenced the historical laws of this country — laws that justified everything from slavery to violence.

“It’s a way to see race,” Jones said. “To see understandings of race, to see racism, in places where it may not otherwise on the surface of it be apparent.”

Critical race theory is a decades-old intellectual movement born out of law schools. It teaches that racism is embedded in systems and structures in the U.S. — such as legal institutions — rather than just being the product of individual prejudice. It is taught in some law schools and universities, but there's little evidence children and teens are learning the concept in grades K-12.

Houston-area Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, says he authored HB 3979 to help children.

“We need to teach about the ills but you can’t blame this generation,” Toth said. “Kids are being scapegoated.”

Toth’s legislation takes on critical race theory without ever naming it. He says the new law is aimed at teaching complex subjects like slavery and racism without making white children feel guilty.

“You can’t teach that one race is better than the other,” Toth said. “You can't teach that one gender is better than the other. You can’t discriminate either… and say that one race or one gender is responsible for the ills of the past.”

Texas history teachers say they don’t scapegoat anyone. Critics call the bill, and others like it in other states, a political football.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, says Toth’s approach could hinder what teachers teach and how they teach it.

He said to consider the prohibition that you cannot teach one race is better than another.

“There were instances in this country where even in the articles of secession in 1861, it was said that the Caucasian race is superior to the African American race," West said. "That’s history. I think that it would be totally unfair if you said you can’t teach what history has shown us to be the position in the past.”

Teachers worry the law could sweep certain subjects off the table, like slavery and the Civil War.

And school districts, like Fort Worth ISD, are concerned their efforts at attaining and teaching racial equity could be derailed because critics who complain critical race theory is taught in the schools often confuse it with a district’s racial equity policies.

While the new law takes effect next Wednesday, it’s unclear how any presumed violations will be proven or punished.

The legislation directs the State Board of Education to “adopt essential knowledge and skills that develop each student’s civic knowledge,” including the founding documents of America and writings of the founding fathers.

During the 2021 regular legislative session, House Democrats successfully pushed for that list to include other historical figures, adding more women and people of color. Texas Democrats also added requirements to include “historical documents related to the civic accomplishments of marginalized populations” in social studies curriculum.

HB 3979 prevents schools from offering extra credit or course credit for any activism or lobbying activities and prohibits schools from requiring educators to take any “training, orientation, or therapy that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping or blame on the basis of race or sex.”
Copyright 2021 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.
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