Rep. Brenda Carter at the House Education Committee, Sept. 21, 2021 | Screenshot
Following a nationwide trend of right-wing furor over how racism is taught in schools, lawmakers on the Michigan House Education Committee on Tuesday traded barbs about race and identity while debating a GOP bill.
The legislation is similar to bills introduced by Republicans in several other states that ban “critical race theory” from being taught in schools, although the Michigan version doesn’t mention CRT by name. CRT is a school of thought that examines how the lives and daily experiences of racially marginalized people are shaped by policies, essentially examining the systemic effects of white supremacy in America that linger today.
House Bill 5097, sponsored by state Rep. Andrew Beeler (R-Ft. Gratiot) and co-sponsored by 10 of the freshman’s Republican colleagues, was originally introduced in late June. A similar bill in the state Senate was proposed the month prior.
Lawmakers did not vote on HB 5097 on Tuesday.
The definitions of “race or gender stereotyping” set forth in the bill’s language criticize any teachings of race that include lessons about inherent racism or sexism, how race and gender affect life outcomes, “collective guilt” for historic wrongs committed by their race and more.
Beeler and others testifying in support denied that the bill would prevent schools from teaching about slavery in a historically accurate way, but rather that it would enhance those teachings by prohibiting the use of “broad strokes” when learning about history.
State Rep. Lori Stone (D-Warren) criticized the bill for being based more on individual, anecdotal instances of stereotyping than any curriculum-related incidents or widespread problems. She pointed out that it could have a “chilling” effect for schools.
“I’m concerned about how chilling this may be in discouraging instruction, facilitating conversations. There is no critical race theory being taught in Michigan’s public schools, and this legislation very much appears to be a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist,” Stone said.
Beeler acknowledged that it is not currently a widespread issue in Michigan, but said he finds value in proactive governance like this because the bill is “worthwhile passing” in case it does become an issue tomorrow.
In response to Stone’s question about whether any education stakeholders support the legislation so far, Beeler said HB 5097 hasn’t been “socialized around to the education community.”
State Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Detroit), the former president of the Michigan Association of School Boards, also pressed the bill’s Republican supporters about its language and intent, as did state Rep. Darren Camilleri (D-Brownstown) about how it could impact Black and Brown students.
“I think that it could only serve to help them, to answer your question very directly,” Beeler said, adding that he feels that nothing in the bill would prevent frank conversations about race and gender in schools.
Cindy Camboa, community organizing and advocacy director for the nonprofit Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, was one of two speakers who testified in opposition to HB 5097. She spoke about the importance of learning about implicit bias and how it affects minorities from her perspective as a Latina.
“I’m very confused about when you say banning racial and gender stereotyping and curriculum. You have to teach about those things in order to break down those things,” said Molly Sweeney, a Detroit resident and the organizing director of 482Forward.
Sweeney called the bill “dangerous” and said the public education system already unjustly leaves out critical aspects of American history.
“This is like burning books,” she said.
Sweeney and state Rep. Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann) had a terse back-and-forth about whether Sweeney would personally characterize the GOP lawmaker as “an oppressor.”
Sweeney also asked Committee Chair Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield Twp.) to carefully consider what it would mean for her as a white woman to shift curriculum about race in such a way.
“You do not know anything about me being a woman, being white, you literally don’t know anything about my life other than what you can read in my profile, so I wouldn’t go there. Thank you,” Hornberger shot back.
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