Leah Willingham Published

W.Va. Senate Passes Bill Restricting Race, Identity Teaching

Owens Brown - WV Senate - March 2 2022.jpg

The West Virginia Senate passed Senate Bill 498 on Wednesday that would prevent the teaching in public K-12 and higher education schools that any race is superior to another or that students should feel guilty because of their race.

The Republican majority greenlit the legislation 21-12, despite objections from multiple Democrats, including the body’s only Black lawmaker, who said the policy was “a step backward.”

Similar legislation has advanced in other states — all led by Republicans — to block the teaching of critical race theory and other instruction centered around race and identity. The measures have caused confusion about whether teaching such topics as the lingering effect of slavery are acceptable in public school classrooms.

Democrats and organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia are opposed to the legislation because of concerns about limiting free speech and censorship in schools.

Democratic Sen. Owens Brown, who is the former president of the West Virginia NAACP and is the first Black man to serve in the state Senate, said there is no evidence that any teachers in West Virginia are teaching students that one race is superior to another.

He accused Republicans of using the bill as a “weapon or tool in their campaigns” and stoking unnecessary fear among citizens.

“It’s been told to you over and over again that it wasn’t taught in the public school but here we are still trying to say it’s being inserted into public schools for political purposes and for political gain,” he said. “And that’s not right, because you’re turning people against each other.”

Critical race theory centers 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.

Brown, who is a retired developmental specialist with the West Virginia Education Association where he served as a human and civil rights coordinator, said West Virginia is more than 90% white and that it’s important for children to experience diversity and be challenged in the classroom.

Democratic Sen. Mike Romano said the bill “opens the door for unfounded complaints against educators for saying the wrong words, or for making somebody upset.”

“There’s a more nefarious tone to this,” he said.

Republican Sen. Patricia Rucker, the bill’s sponsor and a Hispanic woman, said the bill does not target critical race theory or one particular concept or ideology.

She said she has no data on whether children are actually being taught these concepts in school, but there is concern among residents that they are. She said she wants to alleviate those concerns.

“We really worked very carefully to have language that just made it clear: ‘We don’t condone or want those kinds of statements,” she said. “I believe this is truly what the vision of Martin Luther King was: that we judge people based on their character not on the color of their skin.”

Sen. Amy Grady, a Republican who has worked as a public school teacher and spoke in support of the bill, said she teaches her students about difficult topics such as the Civil Rights movement and the historical injustices that Black Americans have faced.

“It’s important to teach those things. It’s important to teach history because we want to learn from history,” she said. “We don’t want to make mistakes of the past.”

What she doesn’t support, she said, is students being taught that because of their race, they are “privileged.” She said many of her students come from generations of poverty.

“To tell those kids that they have a leg up in society because of their race is doing them a great disservice,” she said. “They don’t have a leg up in society no more than skin color holds somebody down.”

The “Anti-Racism Act of 2022” — Senate Bill 498 — prevents the teaching in both public K-12 schools and colleges and universities that one race, ethnic group or biological sex is superior to another, that one group is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive” and that people should be discriminated against or “receive adverse treatment” because of those identities.

It also includes a provision that says students should not be taught that a person’s moral character is determined by their race, ethnicity or biological sex, that a person should not be made to feel “discomfort, guilt or anguish” because of that identity and that “academic achievement, meritocracy, or traits such as hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race, ethnic group or biological sex to oppress” another.