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Tennessee Schools Could Get Fined $5 Million For Talking About Race

It's the horrifying, but logical, conclusion of the reactionary panic over critical race theory.

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In the dying days of its last legislative session, the Tennessee General Assembly banned from public schools 14 specific concepts deemed part of the expansive definition of “critical race theory.”

Reactionary activists have taken up a successful effort to create a new culture war issue to rile up the MAGA base. But while state legislatures around the country have passed similar bills, only the Volunteer State is backing up its censorious law with the threat of multimillion-dollar fines.

The Tennessee Department of Education just issued its guidance on how the new law will be enforced, and it’s a doozy. The state will levy fines starting at $1 million and rising to $5 million on school districts every time one of their teachers is found to have “knowingly violated” the new law.

The list of prohibited concepts is as long as it is vague. What’s clear is that mentioning systemic racism, white privilege, sexism, and a host of other forces that have inarguably shaped American history and continue to shape American life, will put teachers’ careers and schools’ funding at risk if they’re brought up in class, with limited exceptions.

Many of the concepts that are banned have nothing to do with critical race theory. Such topics that are banned include tht “one race or sex is inherently superior,” that “an individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race or sex,” or “promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government.” Apparently, some parents are seriously concerned that a math teacher in Murfreesboro is turning their students into gun-confiscating Bolsheviks.

Potential violations of the new law can be investigated by the district following a complaint by a student, parent, or school employee. The complainant or the teacher can appeal the district’s finding to a state board that will issue a final ruling on the matter.

Along with the dystopic concept of banning certain subjects from school (and the disservice that does to all students who want to understand the world around them), the threat of these fines could have a particularly negative impact on students of color.

“There’s also a fear for young students of color who are in districts that are majority white and now there’s no protection for them and their white student peers in learning about truthful history and racism,” Cardell Orrin, the executive director of Stand for Children Tennessee, a group that advocates for historically disenfranchised students, told EdWeek.

This potential harm to students of color is clear, but the law also poses a risk to white students. One of the complaints that preceded the passage of this law concerned a lesson about Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to desegregate an elementary school in Louisiana, a young woman who showed extraordinary courage. Parents complained that the lesson made white students in the class feel uncomfortable, something they found unacceptable.

But sometimes history is uncomfortable. Injustices and atrocities abound in the discipline, and shielding young people from those lessons denies them a more complete, more insightful understanding of the world and the march of prores in the United States. When you multiply this damage to an individual student by the thousands of public and charter school kids this law will affect, the damage this law could inflict becomes apparent.

If the goal of this bill’s proponents is to turn public schools into proponents of their own nationalistic, MAGA-infused ideology, it’s a smashing success. If it’s to create better informed, more thoughtful citizens who are aware of the injustices of America’s past and present, it’s a massive failure that opens the door for future attacks on public educators and public education.

The school board is allowing public comment on the rules until August 11.