The Daily Gamecock

Column: S.C. Representatives debate critical race theory, reveal they don't know what it is

<p>The S.C. House of Representatives Education and Public Works Committee discusses Critical Race Theory in the statehouse on Jan. 26, 2022. House representatives debated on the five bills related to the theory along with how they should define the term itself.</p>
The S.C. House of Representatives Education and Public Works Committee discusses Critical Race Theory in the statehouse on Jan. 26, 2022. House representatives debated on the five bills related to the theory along with how they should define the term itself.

During the Jan. 26 meeting of the S.C. House of Representatives Education and Public Works (EPW) Committee, legislators discussed five bills that would punish schools and "protect" students from the uncomfortable pieces of American history based on the representatives' incorrect understanding of critical race theory (CRT). 

Throughout the two-hour meeting, representatives debated a bill that would be dangerous to K-12 and higher education in S.C., seemingly without knowing what critical race theory is. 

Their definition of CRT, which is laid out in H. 4799, defines CRT as numerous beliefs about race and other identities but has no real relationship with the actual academic theory that it supposedly addresses.

H. 4799's co-author Rep. Robert May (R-Lexington) referred The Daily Gamecock to the text of his bill when asked for comment. The Daily Gamecock was unable to reach the other co-author, Rep. Russell Fry (R-Horry), for comment.  

The bills' definition of CRT prompted Rep. Terry Alexander (D-Florence) to ask for a definition of CRT from Pierce McNair, the House Education and Public Works Committee’s research director, who also pointed to the text of the bill.

“In a couple of the bills CRT is specifically defined, and for the sake of all inclusion, I’ll go with the longest definition, and that is found in H. 4799,” McNair said.

Ultimately, CRT cannot be easily defined in a piece of legislation because it is an evolving academic framework and theory. 

"Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society — from education and housing to employment and healthcare," according to the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

McNair said the ambiguity of the bill's definition of CRT is a “proverbial snowball" that will continue to evolve. 

This "proverbial snowball" would be a fine definition if the house was simply debating semantics, but it's actually debating a bill that would threaten academic freedom in S.C. schools.

H. 4799 would ban all schools in S.C., including colleges, from teaching what the bill broadly defines as critical race theory, along with other restrictions on what schools can teach, such as ideas about "the multiplicity or fluidity of gender identities." 

It would also install a whistleblower system on each school's website that would allow parents to contact school administrations or the state Department of Education for "complaints regarding instructional materials and curricula ."

According to the current form of the bill, if an entity receiving money from the General Assembly violates this CRT ban, it would have to return those funds and would be prohibited from receiving additional state money for that fiscal year and the next ten fiscal years. 

Additionally, if a public school violates the ban, all students in that school district would be allowed to attend any other school in the state, and the school district would be forced to transfer money funding that student to their new school. 

Chair of the Education and Public Works Committee Rita Allison (R-Spartanburg) said the CRT bills were not a "witch hunt," but the legislation resembles exactly that. 

"I will take her word for that, that she is not, in fact, pushing these bills because she wants to go after teachers, that doesn't mean the possibility doesn't exist. It may not be her intention, but I think you should ask teachers whether they feel this endangers their careers, and I think the answer will be yes," said Carol Harrison, a USC history professor and the President of USC's chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

Under the bill discussed, when a teacher mentions the "wrong" concept or teaches history in the "wrong" way, their school could face punishment. If it were not a witch hunt, why does it threaten teachers and schools? 

The proposed repercussions are somewhat vague. But, as Harrison stated, many would say that it's "not worth my job" to teach potentially illegal concepts. 

According to Harrison, the bill may also contradict the SC REACH Act, which mandates undergraduate students take a three-credit hour course on American founding documents including the Emancipation Proclamation and another "document foundational to the African American Struggle."

"That's a requirement that came out of our legislature too, and now we have laws that seem suggest in some cases that teaching that, for instance, slavery was anything but a betrayal of the founding ideals, we're getting very conflicting signals," Harrison said. 

Harrison clarified that under the SC Reach act and these anti-CRT bills, the state contradicts itself.

"There's a 1984 state law requiring K-12 instruction in African American history. So again, you're putting teachers between a rock and a hard place here," Harrison said.

It seems to hit the Republican committee members' nerves that students are taught that South Carolina's economy was built off of slave labor. Teachers may discuss the Civil War, but under H. 4799, they likely could not discuss the inherent racism in the Confederacy's cause and how it relates to the rest of the country, distorting the entire narrative of American history.

Rep. Calhoun (R-Lexington) said the legislation was necessary because it would stop universities from indoctrinating their students into progressive beliefs. However, academic research and the analysis of history and ideas is an inherent part of all academic spaces, not indoctrination.

Anti-CRT bills are trying to mandate comfort for students in S.C., but there can't be a law that declares that students must be comfortable learning about history's ugly truths. 

Failing to fully teach the lasting effects of slavery, Jim Crow and the innumerable crimes against minorities inflicted throughout American history would be deviations from reality. Whether Republicans, parents or students like it or not, it is essential for our schools to teach the truth.

In order to become law, the bills must first pass through the EPW committee before they can receive a vote in the full House of Representatives. If passed by the House, they would then be sent to the Senate, where the process would repeat in the Senate Education Committee

The House EPW committee will hear testimony about these bills on a date that is to be determined. Members of USC's College of Arts and Sciences and the AAUP chapter will testify, Harrison said.