Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, voiced concern about a controversial bill passed by the Tennessee legislature that would strip funding from public schools that teach concepts of systemic racism in America.
Hakeem, who represents District 28, said the bill would erase centuries of history and cultural experience of African Americans from Tennessee’s public school curriculum and would have a “chilling” effect on what is being taught to millions of students.
“Teachers are going to be undecided,” he said. “Some will perceive they’ll be sticking their necks out to do this.”
Legislators last week passed along party lines Senate Bill 623 on a 25-7 vote, while representatives in the House later approved it 69-20.
The vote followed hours of heated debate, with Democrats–many of them black–urging their mostly white Republican counterparts to reject the bill.
In their arguments, Rep. Hakeem and other Democratic critics accused the Republicans of whitewashing U.S. history and denying that slavery even existed.
It was during one such exchange that Rep. Justin Lafferty, R-Knoxville, gained national attention when he infamously and erroneously proclaimed that the 1787 Constitutional Convention policy designating a slave as three-fifths of a person was adopted for “the purpose of ending slavery.”
Lafferty’s remarks earned applause from his fellow House Republicans.
Rep. Hakeem said discussing systemic racism is necessary “to give people a broader understanding” of history.
“For our children, if they are going to appreciate the worth and value of other individuals, they have to understand what contributions that all people have made to this nation,” he said.
The new legislation, drafted by Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and sponsored by Rep. John Ragan of Oak Ridge–both Republicans–was part of a larger bill that incorporated other guidelines for the state’s education department.
Under the bill, schools would not be able to include or promote the instruction or curriculum teaching of critical race theory–which holds that “this state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist”–without the risk of losing state funding.
The legislation would also prevent schools from teaching that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged,” “the rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups” and “promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government.”
Unlike Tennessee–in some states, culturally responsive, Black History and anti-racist curricula has gained traction in wake of the recent police-involved deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans–with Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey and Oregon introducing mandated legislation.
At press time, Senate Bill 623 is now on the desk of Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who would have to sign the measure into law.