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'We cannot whitewash history' | Opponents say new TN law prohibiting lessons on race will cause more harm than good

In Knox County, Tanya Coats, President of the Knox County Education Association said this will totally change how history and social studies teachers do their jobs.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee is getting national attention for a new education law signed by Governor Bill Lee earlier this week.

It prohibits teachers in Tennessee public schools from teaching about racial and sexual inequality and privilege.

Those who do so risk losing school funding from the state.

The new law lists 14 topics and concepts educators can no longer cover:

  1. One (1) race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;
  2. An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;
  3. An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual's race or sex;
  4. An individual's moral character is determined by the individual's race or sex;
  5. An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;
  6. An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual's race or sex;
  7. A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex;
  8. This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist;
  9. Promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government;
  10. Promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people;
  11. Ascribing character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of the individual's race or sex;
  12. The rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups;
  13. All Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; or
  14. Governments should deny to any person within the government's jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.

Brandon Tucker, Policy Director for the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said schools don't teach these things now.

"Tell the full story of our past. Instruct the real history of our state. And let's identify some common themes and narratives to ensure that we don't do what was done in the past," said Tucker.

In those vague instructions in the law's text, one could argue then that the January 6 U.S. Capitol riots or the police killings of Black men and subsequent protests in 2020 cannot be covered in history lessons.

"Shielding ourselves does not help our students. We cannot whitewash history," said Tucker.

The legislation does allow teachers to discuss racial topics in the following ways:

  1. The history of an ethnic group, as described in textbooks and instructional materials adopted in accordance with part 22 of this chapter;
  2. The impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history;
  3. The impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region; or
  4. Historical documents relevant to subdivisions (b)(1) - (3) that are permitted under § 49-6-1011.

"How can an educator impartially teach Jim Crowism or slavery in this country?" said Tucker. "I think we should all be able to state that it was evil. It was rooted in racism."

In Knox County, Tanya Coats, President of the Knox County Education Association, said this will totally change how history and social studies teachers do their jobs.

"[The governor] says that we need to be more together then than we are apart, but it's unfortunate that we're wanting to erase some of our history," she said.

Coats said not teaching this history could do more harm than good.

"How can we ever move forward if we don't learn from our past?" she said.

Representative John Ragan, a Republican representing Oak Ridge, was the sponsor of the house bill that is now law.

He sent the following statement to 10News:

"As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so cogently observed, we should judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Consequently, I conclude no child, regardless of the color of his or her skin, should be made to feel as anything by their public schools other created equal to all others and endowed by the Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness among other rights.

"Education, not indoctrination, should be the end goal of Tennessee's K-12 educational system. As a standard of education, the disallowed tenets cited under HB 580 / SB 623 Section 51. section (a), below, are nothing short of Marxist/Alinsky style indoctrination. In short, this indoctrination wastes valuable education time that could be better used in upgrading literacy or numeracy in our schools.

"Marxism is based upon socioeconomic analysis using an atheistic, materialist interpretation of historical development. Such historical materialism explains social conflict with a dialectical perspective and completely discounts the rule of law and moral absolutes.

"Alinsky emphasized real or imagined social problems to create antagonism between local groups with superficial similarities and frequently manufactured differences with outsiders. Alinsky used false or twisted narratives set in clever propaganda to artificially stimulate conflict. An outgrowth of Alinsky’s philosophy is Rahm Emanuel’s assertion "Never let a good crisis go to waste."  In other words, propagandistically use any excuse to set one group against another in order to achieve power. As with Marxism, these tenets completely discount the rule of law and moral absolutes.

"Such political philosophies are not designed to bring people together. Rather, instruction using these tenets is intended to sow hatred, division and discord.

"Moreover, this “politically correct” pettifoggery is couched in the assumed inability to think logically by the people the advocates are trying to influence."

Coats disagreed.

"As of the governor, I take his sincere approach that we should not be teaching hate," she said. "But we've never taught hate. We've always taught for knowledge."

Tucker said the ACLU is exploring its legal options both statewide and nationally to make sure racial history is still taught.

Coats said if this law still stands by the time school starts, it's up to parents to make sure their kids know all the history of race in America.