Oklahoma Public Schools Can No Longer Discuss Critical Race Theory – Now What?

by Adelina Branescu

Image: ABC News

What You Can Do

  1. Inform yourself about the bill: https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/aclu-aclu-oklahoma-lawyers-committee-file-lawsuit-challenging-oklahoma-classroom

2. Track education bills in your state: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/subjects/education/5991

Earlier this spring, the Oklahoma State Board of Education passed House Bill 1775 as an emergency rule, aiming to “prohibit discrimination on the basis of race or sex in the form of bias, stereotyping, scapegoating, classification, or the categorical assignment of traits, morals, values, or characteristics based solely on race or sex” in public schools. In principle, an education bill prohibiting discrimination is entirely constitutional and falls in line with many existing laws, such as Title IX. However, this bill in particular has been controversial since its passing in May, and now more than ever, as it faces legal challenges from the ACLU [1]. Its primary goal is to stop discussion of critical race theory in classrooms and remove large parts of American history from the curriculum. It takes advantage of Oklahoma’s emergency rule clause to implement policy that is not responding to an “emergency” at all but rather leaving a lasting impact on American public education.

The bill first states its purpose of prohibitinig public schools from teaching discriminatory content and creating potentially “hostile” environments. It briefly defines public education, then proceeds to outline the prohibited “discrinmination” in Section C. The ACLU, among other organizations, has noted the vagueness in the language of this particular section. First, it is unclear if schools are prohibited from making the stated topics mandatory, or if they are prohibited from teaching them at all: “No teacher, administrator or other school employee shall require or make part of any Course offered in a public school the following discriminatory principles…”[1]. The section then defines, albeit vaguely, eight principles that are to form the basis of Section C’s definition of discrimination. This includes, but is not limited to, teaching that one race is superior to another, or teaching that one should receive discrimination because of their race. Even these parts, despite being the least controversial points in the bill, are vague enough that they can be applied in strategic, partisan ways. The section employs numerous double, sometimes triple, negatives, convoluting what is prohibited and what is not. Its definition of a “discriminatory principle” assumes the concept that it attempts to define. It is unclear in what situation one would genuinely intend to teach this concept, but the vagueness of this bill takes advantage of political tensions and enables loopholes. For example, a topic like affirmative action policy could easily be attacked by this bill; affirmative action has received criticism and praise across the aisle as both a discrimnatory practice and a practice that combats discrimination. Does this mean that a student can request to opt out of learning about affirmative action? Does the bill prohibit its discussion completely?

The list continues with more specific though equally confusing principles. Teaching that one should not treat others without respect to race, for example, is listed as a discriminatory principle, as is the principle of meritocracy being “racist.” Most notably, the bill prohibits schools from mandating any topics that tell anyone to feel uncomfortable or guilty about their race or sex. These statements are fairly hefty and powerful, allowing Oklahoma public schools to make significant changes in their curriculum. For a law meant to protect people from discrimination, it does a poor job of describing how it will protect people and from what. Not only that, but the legislation was passed as an emergency bill, which means it can “avoid violation of federal or state law” as necessary to protect the public’s welfare [8]. It leaves the school policymakers with a significant amount of power in interpreting this law and jurisdiction in what they can do, thus enabling censorship and threatening free speech. Changes have already been made in schools, with books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Raisin in the Sun scrapped from curriculums, and phrases like “white privilege” and “diversity” becoming banned. One way Merriam-Webster defines diversity is: “the inclusion of people of different races, cultures, etc. in a group or organization,” which is arguably the exact opposite of discrimination. The fact that this bill has allowed school districts to interpret the use of the word “diversity” as discriminatory demonstrates the immense power the bill has. 

Civil rights should not be politicized. A bill prohibiting discrimination should be taken at face value, in theory, rather than as a part of a political scheme. There should not be hidden meanings between the lines of legislation. This bill is a clear example of regressive policy that pushes voters away from civic involvement. Time and time again, a simple topic such as environmental science and epidemiology becomes associated with a political ideology. Mistrusting scientists becomes a common political view among a large portion of the country. Regardless of which side one is on, it can be easy to brush off people whose views are far from their own. But, all people can and do vote, many of them voting for policies we students might not agree with. This will not change; controversial legislation will continue to be written and passed, unqualified politicians will be elected, and the government will always leave many frustrated. But, this is no cause for panic. The fact that this policy was passed so easily almost reveals a silver lining: just as those who supported something made a change, those who do not support it can do the same.