Friday, April 12

Opponents of Mississippi’s anti-critical race theory law fear whitewashing of history | mississippi

On the southern steps of the Mississippi state capitol last week, a group of protesters gathered in front of a bronzed casket.

It was empty, but for piles of paper, strewn across the inside. They were printouts of dozens of bills that have died in the state legislature in recent months; a bill to expand healthcare coverage for new mothers; a bill to help provide healthy food options in rural and underserved communitiesa bill to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people.

All had failed before being voted on in a legislature that is controlled by a Republican supermajority.

“These are bills that the people of Mississippi never got a chance to legislate,” said Nsombi Lambright, an organizer with the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, as she addressed the assembled crowd.

“And so when bills like these don’t make it through the process, people seldom have a voice, we seldom have a way to then come back and say: what happened?”

Just a week earlier, however, the state was in the national spotlight for a piece of legislation that it had passed as a priority: a law seeking to ban the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in Mississippi’s schools, colleges and universities.

Protesters arrived at the state capitol with a casket containing dead bills from the previous legislative session. Photograph: Justin Hardiman/The Guardian
Protesters arrive at the state capitol
Protesters arrive at the state capitol. Photograph: Justin Hardiman/The Guardian

Critical race theory is an academic practice that examines the ways in which racism operates in US laws and society.

Mississippi, a crucible of the civil rights movement and the state with the largest proportion – about 38% – of Black residents anywhere in the US, became the latest of 15 states to enact laws suppressing teaching of the discipline. The issue has become a pivotal clarion call for rightwing policymakers in America’s ongoing culture wars.

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The bill had been voted through on partisan lines. When it passed the state senate in January, every Black senator withheld their vote and walked out in protest. Every vote for the bill in the House came from white republican lawmakers.

House Representative Cheikh Taylor, a Democrat was one of a number of Black caucus members who vehemently opposed the new legislation during debates
House representative Cheikh Taylor, a Democrat was one of a number of Black caucus members who vehemently opposed the new legislation during debates. Photograph: Justin Hardiman/The Guardian

As he signed the bill into law, Mississippi’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, said the legislation would combat “indoctrination in our state”. He argued, without citing evidence, that “children are dragged to the front of the classroom and are coerced to declare themselves as oppressors, taught that they should feel guilty because of the color of their skin, or that they are inherently a victim because of their race.”

The Mississippi department of education has repeatedly stated that critical race theory is not being taught in public schools. Reportingindicates it is taught in just one higher education class in the entire state, at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

Many who observed the legislation pass, including Democrats in the statehouse, argued the bill represented a direct backlash against bipartisan efforts to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state’s flag, which occurred in 2020 after the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It is retribution and retaliation for the flag coming down,” said the Democratic state representative Cheikh Taylor. “And I would dare say that many of my Republican counterparts were under tremendous pressure to bring this up.”

He added: “What have I [the governor] has shown is that he’s willing to align himself with divisive policies that are heavily red meat items for his far, far-right base.”

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Taylor sits on the house universities and colleges committee and became one of the most outspoken opponents of the bill as it passed through the legislature.

“This whole debate was centered around ignorance. For me, ignorance is not not knowing. It’s a willingness not to know,” he said. “History needs to be told as is – it doesn’t need to be sanitized, whitewashed … surely we cannot sanction our public school systems and our districts for teaching history?”

Like many other CRT bills around the country, the wording of Mississippi’s legislation is short and vague. It prohibits public schools and universities from compelling “students to personally affirm, adopt or adhere … that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin is inherently superior or inferior”. It also blocks public educational institutions from making a “distinction or classification of students based on account of race”.

Maisey Brown, a 20 year-old politics student addressed the crowd
Maisey Brown, a 20-year-old politics student addressed the crowd. Photograph: Justin Hardiman/The Guardian

Despite not defining CRT directly, the bill stipulates that any school, college or university found to have violated these tenets could lose public funding.

Advocates have warned of a chilling effect on school and college campuses around the state. Students too have begun to brace themselves for the uncertainty of how the legislation may be implemented.

Although it was spring break last week, a number of students, high school, college and university, had come to protest outside the state capitol.

Telesia Bracey, a 17-year-old student at Jim Hill high school, spoke before the crowd. It was the first protest she had ever attended and she told the Guardian that history was her favorite subject of hers.

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Her speech began with a reference to Brown v Board of Education, the landmark supreme court ruling that established segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

“Yet here we are,” she said. “Almost 68 years later, having a conversation and battling over the reality of the continued erasure of not only Black history, but the history and legacy of oppression, as if slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, police brutality and discrimination were all apart of Houdini’s famous tricks and could be made to disappear.”

Although it was spring break, the action drew scores of young people
Although it was spring break, the action drew scores of young people. Photograph: Justin Hardiman/The Guardian
The new anti-CRT legislation contains vague, broad language leading many opponents worrying it will have chilling effect on campus
The new anti-CRT legislation contains vague, broad language leading many opponents worrying it will have chilling effect on campus. Photograph: Justin Hardiman/The Guardian

Maisey Brown, a 20-year-old politics student at Jackson State University, said organizers on campus were now in the initial phases of monitoring how and if the legislation would affect their studies.

“It’s a very broad bill, which makes it even more scary and easy to manipulate,” she said. “Right now we are in the process of making sure we completely understand what the bill is actually trying to do. And then secondly, figuring out how we can ensure that our history is not being watered down on any level of education – from kindergarten to collegiate level.”

For Jeremy Marquell-Bridges, a 34-year-old studying process engineering at Mississippi Gulf Coast community college, the possibilities felt chilling.

“The thing I fear is the thing we’re seeing now. We have a generation of people who don’t understand that what they’re saying or doing could be offensive to certain people,” he said. “The manipulation of history does what it always does. It confuses people and recreates the same problems over and over.”

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