Opinion: Georgia bill would chill classroom discussions of race, racism

Educators rally outside the Georgia State Capitol against bills that would limit what they can teach about race and racism in Georgia, on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Educators rally outside the Georgia State Capitol against bills that would limit what they can teach about race and racism in Georgia, on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Teachers may avoid talking about racism today for fear of complaints

In defending the need for a parental bill of rights at a House Education Committee meeting, state Rep. Josh Bonner, R-Fayetteville, admitted Georgia parents can already legally do most of what his bill addresses.

“If I walked over to Whitewater High School today and asked to see the book that was being used in my kid’s history classes, they’d provide that, no problem,” said Bonner, adding that he knows the teachers, principal, superintendent and school board members in Fayette County.

Jumping in from the dais, House Education Chair Matt Dubnik interjected, “If you were John Q Parent and not State Representative and you didn’t know that administrator, that teacher, that school board, this would allow those types of requests to be made for that dialogue to be open.”

I have an easier solution for Bonner and Dubnik than befriending the principal or enacting an unnecessary parents’ bill of rights to learn what their children are reading in class: Just ask their kids.

Bonner contends his bill unifies parent rights in a single place, saying it shouldn’t turn into “a scavenger hunt.” His alternative is turning it into a witch hunt.

“At its core, this is an attack on teachers and administrators,” said DeKalb kindergarten teacher Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “What this legislation says is we don’t trust the experts in this field.”

The parents’ bill of rights is part of a legislative package designed to certify Gov. Brian Kemp’s conservative credentials. The most controversial bill in the package is a ban on the teaching of “divisive concepts,” which is a proxy for critical race theory and discussions about race and racism in America that some white parents oppose.

The divisive concept prohibitions assures a clear outcome: Teachers and principals, intimidated by the 2022 version of the White Citizens’ Councils, will avoid race and racism. Those councils and their anti-integration efforts in the 1950s and ‘60s, would track “subversives” within their communities.

State Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, said even attorneys on the House Education Committee were confused over the bill after hours of discussion, and yet teachers will be expected to decipher it.

“I am very concerned that this is going to create a chilling effect on teachers, and they will be unable to have thoughtful and honest discussions in the classroom,” she said.

While the sponsors insist they worked hard on the language so teachers have nothing to fear, legislation with the similar verbiage already enacted in some states has led to troubling censorship and complaints.

In Alabama, parents reported schools for holding Black History Month programs. A Tennessee parents group filed a complaint that white students were uncomfortable having to learn about Ruby Bridges, who integrated a white school in New Orleans in 1960. The photo of her arriving at school as a 6-year-old protected by U.S. marshals is seared into the nation’s conscience.

A central Florida district canceled a seminar for history teachers on the U.S. civil rights movement by a local college professor for fear it would run afoul of the state’s new law. The second-largest school district in Utah banned the display of Black Lives Matter flags in the name of remaining “neutral.” Teachers in an Oklahoma district were advised to avoid the terms “diversity” and “white privilege.”

Georgia House Bill 1084 prohibits teaching that children should feel guilty for, say, slavery because they are white. At a recent hearing, the sponsor, state Rep. Will Wade, R-Dawsonville, described his own second grader’s turmoil over learning about Rosa Parks. Wade said his teary-eyed daughter asked, “Why do white people do that? Why do people hate each other, Daddy?”

That feeling of anguish is fine, he said, because it springs from his daughter’s own “natural empathy” to past atrocities.

What about the teary-eyed Black child who wants to talk about always being followed by clerks in stores who treat him as a potential shoplifter? What about the Korean American second grader who asks her teacher why someone shouted at her and grandmother, “You have the Chinese Virus, go back to China.”

Pressed on the intent of his bill, Wade said it would help Georgia “get past the past without forgetting the past.”

But racism is not an artifact, no matter what Wade or his colleagues maintain. His legislation may allow his own daughter and other children to anguish over past racism directed at Rosa Parks, but it will limit opportunities for students of color from broaching the anguishing racism they see today.

Wade repeatedly said his bill “centers on the child.” The question is whose child?