“House Bill 3979 is about teaching racial harmony, that we are all equal in God’s eyes,” state Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) said in his presentation of the bill, House Bill (HB) 3979.
“Critical race theory rejects our constitutional liberties and the rule of law… Marxism and CRT are inextricably linked.”
The term “critical race theory” refers to an academic discourse that understands racism as a systematic rather than interpersonal phenomenon. An end to personal prejudice would not mean the end of racism under critical understandings of race. It branches from critical theory, often just called “theory,” itself rooted in Karl Marx and certain philosophers he influenced. Its newfound prominence follows decades of ripening in academic or corporate settings before reaching popularity with the writings of bestselling authors like Ibram X. Kendi and Roxane Gay.
Toth quoted from theorist and educator Gloria Ladson-Billings in his introduction to demonstrate critical race theory, including assertions that “conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread” and that “racism is normal, not aberrant, in American society.”
While Toth claimed that critical teachings of race sow disunity, Rep. Mary González (D-Clint) said her experience has given her the opposite impression. González recently earned a doctorate in Cultural Studies in Education at the University of Texas at Austin, for which she had to read a number of critical race theorists, and said the lessons she learned have helped her navigate the legislature.
“I have seen how critical theory and critical race theory healed me, helped me understand society, so I could come into this space and be loving, compassionate, a unifier,” González said, further adding that “personal theory and research” bear out her claim that race theory calms rather than irritates relationships.
While critical race theory has perhaps attracted the most attention to the bill, the text describes but never mentions it explicitly. Instead, it forbids several precepts of critical race theory — such as notions of collective guilt, racial responsibility, or intentionally preferential treatment — but also applies to the same ideas for gender. For example, it would be forbidden to teach that “meritocracy or traits such a hard work ethic are racist or sexist,” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
The bill says that teachers may choose to host discussions on controversial topics, but only if they strive to explore them from “diverse and contending perspectives.”
This piece of the bill proved troublesome after Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) said it conflicted with state curriculum standards which require discussion of current topics. Toth offered an amendment that slimmed down the bill’s wording somewhat, trading “current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues” for the more singular and specific “a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue.”
The proposal also aims to limit “action civics,” a method of teaching civics or government classes by including lobbying or activism in the curriculum. The teaching method has been adopted in a number of other states, praised by some as an effective learning tool and criticized by others, Toth included, as a way for progressive politicians to gain “pawns” from the school system.
Talarico opposed the action civics limitations most strongly, arguing that activity is the best way for children to learn about the political process and “sustain our Constitutional democracy.” Toth said children can still participate in such activities outside of the classroom and said they should not be required or used as extra credit.
Rep. Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth) sparred with Toth about how to define “founding principles” given the latent but clear presence of slavery in the U.S. Constitution.
“You’re trying to erase the history so our students don’t grow up learning about what they shouldn’t do in the future,” Collier said.
“You’re rewriting history. You’re saying the advent of history was not the true founding of the United States.”
“They’re saying slavery and racism were a betrayal,” Toth said.
“It was a deviation from the original intent of what our founders was… Slavery did not live up to our founding principles.”
The conversation took place on an amendment that Toth added, aimed at keeping teachers from advocating for the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Toth said teachers may discuss the project but not “proselytize” on it. The amendment added to the list of forbidden concepts any lesson “that, with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”
If passed into law, the bill would pump the brakes on diversity plans around the state, some of which galvanized local school board races recently. Carroll ISD’s race swept in a slate of candidates campaigning against the district’s “diversity” plan, and a school board election in Austin racked up record-breaking fundraising numbers after launching a “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” initiative last summer.
However, in the amending process, Toth accepted a wide range of documents to include in the bill, from Thomas Jefferson’s Danbury Baptist letter to historical documents relating to the Chicano movement. Several lawmakers, mostly Democrats, introduced amendments to tack these onto the list of “founding documents” of the United States, sometimes replacing Toth’s original items.
Similar to other standalone bills, Toth’s bill included a section to encourage the study of America’s founding principles and require an understanding of the founding documents. This list originally just included the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Lincoln-Douglas debates, letters between the Founding Fathers, and the Federalist Papers. It grew significantly as the night went on.
Toth accepted an amendment by Collier that removed the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville from this list after González claimed he justified slavery in Democracy in America. He also accepted amendments that included the histories of various indigenous Texas tribes, the women’s suffrage movement, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the life of Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Hector P. Garcia.
The 81 to 52 tally showed that Toth’s acceptance of these amendments did little to earn Democratic votes.
“You’ve shown an immense willingness to be open,” Rep. Carl Sherman (D-DeSoto) told Toth after presenting an amendment, which was adopted, to include Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the life and work of Cesar Chavez, among other writings.
“We’re simply asking that teachers teach from a diverse perspective without proselytizing,” Toth said.
“I think it’s imperative that teachers have the ability to speak freely without the fear of reprisal.”
After final passage through the House, the bill would have to be approved by the Senate.
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