ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's public school teachers must be prevented from preaching racial guilt to students, Republican lawmakers argued Friday as the Senate passed a bill banning the teaching of "divisive concepts," despite arguments from Democrats that the proposal would stifle honest discussion of lingering racial disparities in American society.
Senate Bill 377 passed by a 32-20 vote and now moves on to the House, which passed a similar measure last week.
The measures ban teaching a list of items originally listed in a now-repealed 2020 executive order by former President Donald Trump. Republicans are reacting against critical race theory, a term stretched from its original meaning as an examination of how societal structures perpetuate white dominance to a broader indictment of diversity initiatives and teaching about race.
Banned "divisive concepts" would include claims that the U.S. is "fundamentally or systematically racist," that any people are "inherently racist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously," and that no one "should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of his or her race." Bills using identical language have been proposed in dozens of states, backed by the Center for Renewing America, a think tank led by former Trump administration officials.
"I believe that every single one of us in this room today understands our history and the way it has shaped our present, without having been taught that you inherited those burdens," said Sen. Bo Hatchett, a Cornelia Republican and floor leader for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. The governor has expressed support for the measures in general terms.
Democrats, though, said the bill not only tries to ban discussion of systemic racism in society, but is an example of systemic racism itself.
"We're going to watch this overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male majority decide what is and isn't OK," said Sen. Kim Jackson, a Stone Mountain Democrat. "It's going to be used to punish teachers and punish schools simply because they dare to tell the truth, the truth that there are today some fundamental inequalities in our system."
Conservative concern over how schools handle race, sexual orientation and other subjects has prompted a raft of legislation in Georgia and other states. Other bills pending in Georgia would allow parents to ask for "inappropriate" materials to be removed from schools and prohibit transgender girls from playing on female sports teams. Kemp is backing a push to give parents more power to control their children's education and be able to scrutinize what's being taught.
Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, said the measure is part of a conservative backlash against the examination of racial inequalities prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement. She and others said the measure is so confusing that it's likely to scare teachers into avoiding sensitive subjects.
"The bill proves we haven't even healed from our past because now we're hiding it, we're trying to shuffle it under the rug," said Sen. Nikki Merritt, a Grayson Democrat.
Republicans, though, said some of the people criticizing the bill are proof that undesirable indoctrination has entered the classroom. Sen. Randy Robertson, a Cataula Republican, said he was sent a video by a Muscogee County parent about a Columbus Day video in which Native Americans raised a middle finger and uttered an obscenity directed toward the explorer Christopher Columbus, who committed atrocities against indigenous people.
"I saw no value in this concept being taught in the classroom," said Robertson, who argued that valuable lessons have been "pushed to the side so divisive concepts could be taught in the classroom."
A complaint process would let parents and others complain to a school's principal. That principal would be required to respond within five school days, with the decision reviewed and finalized by the local superintendent. If a parent didn't like that outcome, they could appeal to the state Board of Education. The state board could punish schools that don't comply by requiring the board to revoke at least some of the school district's waivers from state law and rules.