Faith groups challenge bills that would restrict teaching about racism

Advocates oppose hiding aspects of history that shape the present

By: - August 10, 2021 2:10 pm
Native American Elder Art Shegonee

Native American Elder Art Shegonee, speaks Monday at a vigil outside the state Capitol in response to proposed legislation that would limit what is taught about racism in history. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

On the steps of the state Capitol Monday evening, about 60 people of differing faiths came together for an hour of prayers, sermons and a call to stand against proposed legislation that that participants charge would silence teaching about the history of racism, and related subjects, in Wisconsin schools.

The bills target what Republicans nationwide are calling critical race theory, without using those words in the legislation.

The Rev. Edward Mitchell

“The attempt to shut down any kind of education on these things is an attempt to deprive us of the ability to educate future generations, so that they can correct the mistakes of the ancestors, so that we can live a more generous and more prosperous future,” said the Rev. Everett Mitchell, who is both a Baptist pastor and a Dane County Circuit Court judge. “But it only comes if we really deal with the horrific realities of the unjust past.”

Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, along with the Wisconsin Council of Churches, the Lutheran Office of Public Policy in Wisconsin, as well as the statewide faith-based social justice organization WISDOM and its Madison affiliate, MOSES, helped organize the Monday vigil in response to several proposals that Republican lawmakers have introduced targeting programs that teach about racism and sexism. 

Two bills will go before a joint public hearing of the Assembly Education Committee and the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday at 10 am. Several of the organizations that took part in Monday evening’s vigil plan to present testimony Wednesday in opposition to the legislation.

One of the bills, AB-411/SB-411, focuses on classroom instruction as well as training for employees in public and charter schools. 

The legislation bans teaching “race or sex stereotyping” and enumerates eight specific concepts that would be forbidden to teach. (See sidebar.)

Bills in the state Legislature, in the bills’ wording, forbid classroom lessons or employee training programs that teach or promote

… race or sex stereotyping including any of the following concepts:

(a) One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.

(b) An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.

(c) An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race or sex.

(d) Individuals of one race or sex are not able to and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex.

(e) An individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by the individual’s race or sex.

(f) An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for acts committed in the past by other individuals of the same race or sex.

(g) An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of the individual’s race or sex.

(h) Systems based on meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or are created by individuals of a particular race to oppress individuals of another race.

Equity-focused teaching

It might seem laudable to ban teaching some of those concepts — such as that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another.” But Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, executive director of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, says that lurking in the bill is an attempt to prevent the teaching of historical facts about systemic racism in American history.

Rabbi Bonnie Margulis of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice

“There’s a lot that needs to be fixed in our society, and we need to be able to face it head on,” says Margulis, interviewed after the event. 

According to the bill, Margolis notes, “you cannot teach that anybody, by virtue of their race or sex, bears responsibility for acts in our history by individuals of their race or sex.” 

But she says that is based on a false premise that “what we’re teaching kids is that they should feel personally responsible and should feel guilty” for slavery, Native American genocide, the oppression of women and Asian Americans and other hard truths. “That isn’t really what anybody is teaching.”

Instead, she continues, equity-focused lessons are aimed at teaching “the honest history of who we are as a country” that includes all of those topics.

“Not that any one kid or group of kids should feel bad or guilty or responsible,” Margulis adds, “but they should realize that the effect of this history is still being felt today, and that so many of the policies and systems on which our society are built, and still run today, are steeped in that racist history.”

The Wisconsin legislation echoes similar bills being introduced across the country that seek to block teaching about that history, Marguils says.

“You can’t address the problems and change the things that are going on in our country that are detrimental if you don’t understand what they are, where they came from,” she says. “And that’s what these bills are aimed at stopping and preventing.”

‘We’re all part of the circle’

Attendees at the vigil heard from a multitude of faith streams. 

Art Shegonee, a Native American elder, displayed a medicine wheel and spoke of human unity. “We’re all part of the circle. We’re all human beings,” he said. “How many here have grandchildren and children? One of the things that you will notice is that when there are children out on the playground, they see no color, there’s no divisions. They only think that this is a friend that they want to play with.”

Rev. Kerri Parker leads a prayer
The Rev. Kerri Parker, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches

Madison Rabbi Jonathan Biatch blew a shofar, or ram’s horn, a ritual associated with the Jewish High Holy Days culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He did so “to alert us to the necessary tasks of society today, which is to repair the sin of human intolerance — the transgression of racism that has been part of our American way of life for at least 400 years,” Biatch said. 

To atone, “We must learn to become active anti-racists,” he added. “We need to teach, to learn, and accept the truth of our nation’s history of systemic racism.”

The Rev. Kerri Parker, the Wisconsin Council of Churches executive director, offered a prayer. “God, some truths hurt, but we must bear them,” Parker said. “Help us stand in the footsteps of those who affirmed the truth with every fiber of their being.”

Posting curriculum details

The bill restricting how racism is taught includes a requirement that school districts post information about all learning materials in every class. Wednesday’s hearing also will include testimony on a second bill (AB-488/SB-463), which includes similar requirements. 

I don't know how you teach Holocaust education, without teaching about racism and sexism and hate.

– Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) takes credit in its newsletter for shaping that legislation with Wisconsin lawmakers so that parents could challenge school lessons that they oppose. The right-wing law firm reviewed school curricula and, in a report published in May, stated that lessons examining racism in American history and in the formation of American institutions reflected “the creep of political agendas into the classroom.” WILL has launched a project to oppose government programs that attempt to address historic inequities, claiming that they discriminate against whites.

Margulis says that while curriculum transparency is a positive value, the legislation demands so much detail that “it just freezes teachers interested in teaching any subject that could be remotely considered to be difficult or controversial.”

She also sees a contradiction between the legislation and a recently passed law requiring schools to include lessons about the Holocaust.

“I don’t know how you teach Holocaust education, without teaching about racism and sexism and hate,” Margulis says. “All the things that these bills sort of outline that you’re or you’re not allowed to teach? Well, they’re kind of inherent in teaching Holocaust education.”

Two other bills parallel the one limiting public school instruction. One (AB-413/SB-409) forbids the same kind of classroom instruction or training in the University of Wisconsin System and the state’s technical colleges. The other bill (AB-414/SB-410) similarly forbids such training for state and local government employees; a hearing is set Wednesday before the Assembly Government Accountability and Oversight Committee. Both forbid teaching the identical eight concepts listed in the school bill.

‘Stoking fears about our schools’

Another speaker at Monday night’s faith vigil, Lynn McDonald, represented the Wisconsin and Madison chapters of Church Women United. The organization was founded shortly after World War II by Eleanor Roosevelt, who brought together women’s auxiliaries from Black and white churches “to stand against hate and intolerance and to protest loudly against the fascism that had spread in Germany and Europe, and to ensure that the Holocaust of the Jews would never happen again,” McDonald said.

We want our students to have an education that imparts honesty about who we are, integrity in how we treat others, and courage to do what's right.

– Lynn McDonald, Church Women United

“We want our students to have an education that imparts honesty about who we are, integrity in how we treat others, and courage to do what’s right,” she added. “But the same lawmakers who have denied our classrooms resources and demand and sacrifices of our teachers are now stoking fears about our schools, trying to dictate what teachers say, and block students from learning our shared stories of confronting injustice to build a more perfect union.”

Some groups that aim to stop schools from teaching frankly about racism in American history are bringing their campaigns to local school board meetings, and Margulis said the interfaith effort has launched a campaign to defend such lessons.

The campaign urges volunteers to pledge to advocate for racial equity, particularly in public debates in local government where issues arise that might “invite the engagement of those with white supremacist views or goals,” in the words of the campaign’s online statement.

“We’re getting people to come out to those meetings, and people of faith, clergy and activists, to come and speak in favor of equity and inclusion,” Margulis says, “and to have our curricula teach the truth to our kids about our history — about racism about slavery about the genocide against Native Americans.”

This story has been updated with additional public hearing information.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.