Texas House Bill 3979 steps backward from racial progress, ignoring the US’s current racial climate and politicizing education.
On October 14, in a training session to the Caroll independent school district, Gina Peddy, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, suggested that if teachers kept a book about the Holocaust in their classroom, they should offer a book with an opposing perspective.
It’s a line directly out of an extremist blog, but in the context of classroom education. How did we get here?
When suggesting literature on Holocaust denialism, Peddy was directly referencing the newly-implemented House Bill 3979. H.B. 3979, coined by legislators as “The Critical Race Bill,” was passed on June 15 and was made effective this September. Under an ostensible need to enhance Texas’s social studies curriculum, the bill regulates teaching by enforcing the denial of racial guilt to protect white consciousness.
The portion of the bill in question mandates that teachers cannot be required to discuss current or controversial events. If they do, they must discuss the topic without “giving deference to any one perspective.” Furthermore, these teachers cannot introduce certain race-related ideas that the bill delineates. To get a sense of what those prohibited ideas are, look no further than the bill’s explicit ban on the New York Times’ 1619 project, a centering of US history on black oppression.
The bill sparks worrying parallels to censorship of media by authoritarian regimes. But alongside that worry is an intriguing undercurrent of white insecurity within the bill’s text. The bill outright bans any notions that an individual is, by virtue of their race or sex, “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.” Banned is the idea that someone “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of [their] same race or sex.” The bill professes itself to be race-neutral, but the overwhelming historical context of white US dominance makes clear that these bans serve only to soothe the guilty conscience of white people. When racism is openly articulated, it is cast as historically distant and irrelevant. For example, slavery is declared a “deviation,” a “betrayal,”and a “failure” of the authentic founding principles of the United States.
In its deference to white guilt, the bill has caused cascading impacts in the US education system. The bill’s inaccurate marketing as a ban on critical race theory (CRT)—an academic lens that focuses on racial oppression as intrinsic to US history—has polarized Texas school boards and already led to promises from political candidates in other states to “ban CRT”. The reality is that critical race theory was never widely taught in K-12 schools, but educators are now deterred from engaging in general racial discourse.
For example, James Whitfield was accused of teaching CRT and put on leave after writing a previously applauded letter to the school community during the Black Lives Matter protests. He was a Black principal in a primarily white neighborhood. In the Caroll independent school district, a district with a history of privilege and racism, conservative parents have pressured the school board to retract lessons which would place a focus on race and diversity. These impacts are doubtlessly products of the bill’s outright ban of race-related ideas, and the bill’s section on “free debate” is predicated on equally worrying concepts.
The old adage is that in the marketplace of ideas, public dispute leads to the best ideas succeeding and the immoral or incorrect ideas perishing. HB 3979 clearly mimics this principle with its mandate to give equal weight to opposing perspectives. However, it ignores the fact that expressing ideas is never free or equal: when media representation and audience reception privilege certain voices over others, the group consensus will likely be fraught with bias.
More worrying is the fact that under HB 3979, many ideas about race will never surface in the first place. Teachers, confused by the vague wording of the bill, are experiencing a chilling effect under the scrutiny of parents and lawmakers. This applies not only to racial discourse, but ripples to politicized topics ranging from climate change to reproductive rights. A Texas state lawmaker has requested that superintendents check from a list of titles if their schools contain books that address feminism, teenage sexuality, LGBTQ+ perspectives, and reproductive rights. Teachers will have little time to introduce a wide range of literature, much less debate the inequities presented in that literature, if they are too busy rifling through their shelves at the behest of politicians.
HB 3979 steps backwards from racial progress, ignoring the US’s current racial climate and politicizing education. Its equivocation of viewpoints masks white nationalism under the rhetoric of free speech. Texan teachers have already expressed concerns about the bill, unsure how to negotiate its suppressive effect on classroom debate. In a state with a public school population of 5.3 million students, the effects will be dire. In a country that struggles to channel social unrest towards constructive policy, the stakes are no less high.