Leah Willingham Published

W.Va. Lawmakers Take Up The Teaching Of Race And Identity

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West Virginia lawmakers waded into the teaching of race and identity in schools on Thursday as a measure to ban the teaching that one group is superior to another took the first step toward becoming state law.

The words “critical race theory” were not said once during the more than 1 and 1/2 hour meeting of the House Education Committee on Thursday, but the debate echoed themes touted by conservatives in other states and national media under that label in recent months. The bill’s sponsors said they were concerned that schools are trying to rewrite American history and convince some children that they are inferior or superior to others.

Critical race theory is an obscure academic theory based on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society. It has emerged as a hot-button issue in recent months, but there is little to no evidence that it has been taught to K-12 public school students. Efforts to restrict its teaching have caused confusion in states where similar laws have passed about whether teaching on such things as the lingering impact of slavery are acceptable in public school classrooms.

Lead sponsor Chris Pritt, a white Republican from Kanawha County, said he has not heard of any such lessons being taught in West Virginia. But he said he wants to be “proactive” at “addressing any kind of problems we could potentially have.”

“We have had instances throughout the country where certain concepts are being taught in schools along the lines that certain individuals based inherently on their race, national origin and so forth, are inherently superior or inherently inferior and we do not want those concepts to be taught in our schools,” he said.

Pritt said multiple times that he is concerned about “clear examples” of ”instances around the country where there are certain issues that are cropping up,” but he was unable to describe specific instances in detail.

“Clearly, you can teach history, you can teach facts,” Pritt said. “Certain divisive concepts, such as ‘one race being inherently inferior or superior’ certain ideas like that, that are contrary to our principles as a country, we shouldn’t be teaching.”

Democratic. Del. Sean Hornbuckle, who is Black, said his main concern about the bill is that there haven’t been any formal complaints that the kind of teaching described by Pritt is happening in West Virginia.

“We’re fishing for something that’s just not here in this state,” he said. “We’re looking at issues that nobody can point to where they’re even coming from across the country. It just seems like a lot of rhetoric, a lot of political posturing.”

The bill passed through the House Education Committee on party lines and will now head to the Judiciary Committee.

Dubbed “The Anti-Stereotyping Act” by its sponsors, the bill dictates that public and charter schools can’t “promote, embrace, or endorse stereotypes” based on race, sex, ethnicity, religion or national origin. It says schools cannot compel students or staff to believe that “one race, sex, ethnicity, religion, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior to another.”

The bill also states that people of a certain identity should not be “blamed for actions committed in the past by other members” of the same identity.

The bill dictates that public and charter schools must disclose on their websites training, instructional or curricular materials “on all matters of nondiscrimination, diversity, equity, inclusion, race, ethnicity, sex, or bias.”

On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia took to Twitter to encourage residents to contact members of the committee to tell them to “vote NO on this latest attempt to stifle free speech in our classrooms.”

“Politicians are again trying to make the classroom their battlefield,” the ACLU tweeted. “This bill is designed to intimidate teachers from discussing diversity and equity.”

Also on Twitter, Kanawha County Democrat Kayla Young called the bill “diet CRT” on Thursday and said after the GOP-led committee vote that “the rubber stamp strikes again.”

About 4 percent of West Virginia’s 1.8 million residents are Black.

During a legislative hearing in September, deputy state schools Superintendent Michele Blatt said West Virginia education standards do not encompass critical race theory.