This legislative session, State Representative Ed Oliver reintroduced a ‘divisive concepts’ bill, also known as anti-critical race theory legislation, and not everyone is on board.
Before the bill, HB7, goes before the Alabama House for a vote, it was first debated in the State Government committee. During the committee’s meeting, Rep. Barbara Boyd described the bill as devastating for public schools, should it pass. As a retired educator, she said it is her life’s mission to defend public education, and is opposing the bill.
Due to the nature of the bill, both Rep. Prince Chestnut and Rep. Kelvin Lawrence predicted committee votes will fall along racial lines rather than political party lines.
“I can trace my lineage back to a farm in Marion Junction, Alabama,” Rep. Chestnut said. “My folks were enslaved. That’s a fact. Slavery, by its very nature, was evil. It was sinister. It was divisive.”
Despite these legislators’ opposition, the vote passed 9-3. The three opposing votes were from the committee’s three Black legislators. The bill has since moved to the House of Representatives and has not been voted as of yet.
President Benard Simelton of the Alabama National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said the bill is a problem.
HB7 states it aims to prohibit ‘divisive concepts’ relating to race, sex or religion in state agencies, local boards of education and public institutions of higher education.
Simelton said the concepts outlined in the bill are deliberately vague, making it difficult for educators to know what they can or cannot teach students.
For example, if students go on a field trip to the White House of the Confederacy, he said teachers may not feel they can talk about the slave trade that occurred steps away from the building. This consequently leaves out parts of American history; it leaves out Black history, according to Simelton.
“We are not asking them to teach ‘divisive concepts,’” Simelton said. “We are asking them to allow the teachers to teach history as it occurred and not leave out the portions that make people feel uncomfortable. And of course, you have to adjust that to the age group.”
Simelton said another issue is the bill’s impact even before it passes. In Tuscaloosa, for example, he said Hillcrest High School students had to omit parts of their Black History Month Program. Allegedly, school administration told students they had to leave out slavery and the civil rights movement from their program. In response, the students walked out in protest.
What is CRT?
Simelton said anti-CRT bills are not only jeopardizing history but also ignoring the fact that race matters within American society, both in the past and present.
“I could go down to the bank and have a similar credit score as a white counterpart and their loan rates are lower than mine, if I were to get the loan,” Simelton said. “That’s what critical race theory is, understanding that everything that happens in America, race plays an impact in that.”
According to the NAACP’s legal defense fund, “critical race theory, or CRT, is an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society — from education and housing to employment and healthcare. Critical race theory recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice. It is embedded in laws, policies and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities. According to CRT, societal issues like Black Americans’ higher mortality rate, outsized exposure to police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, denial of affordable housing, and the death rates of Black women in childbirth are not unrelated anomalies.”
Camille Bennett, founder and executive director of Project Say Something, said the term CRT has become a dog whistle for the far right, beginning within Christopher Rufo’s writings.
“From there we started to see the policies form and it started with Trump’s executive order around critical race theory,” she said. “Soon after he was unseated, we saw bills pop up in primarily southern states.”
Bennett said HB7 is supporting the ideology that white children are harmed by discussion of CRT, but there is no factual evidence to support that claim.
“(CRT) is as simple as children in a classroom asking ‘why Jim Crow existed and what happened and how we got from point A to point B,’” Bennett said. “If you really intend to teach the children and explain how it happened, you are getting into critical race theory.”
According to the NAACP's legal defense fund, CRT was developed in the 70s and 80s by legal scholars as a response to the growing idea of a colorblind society.
Both Bennett and Simpleton said America is not a post-racial society and still cannot afford to execute a colorblind approach. Simpleton has a three-year-old grandson and a four-month-old granddaughter. He said both of them will discover race impacts what they are provided and what they have access to.
Should it pass…
Bennett noted the bill is also hypocritical because the state funds confederate monuments and schools currently allow presentations by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, all of which are divisive, and the bill will likely not target.
Due to this, Bennett said she is concerned about how this bill would be enforced because it is based on what the local school board considers a ‘divisive concept’ or not.
There also is a clause stating the bill won’t prohibit “the teaching of topics or historical events in a historically accurate context.” However, there are no outlines within the bill on what is considered historically accurate.
Even though the term CRT was not coined until a few decades ago, Bennett said CRT has been going on for centuries through anytime Black people critique the oppressive systems, from slavery to Jim Crow or beyond.
If the bill should pass, Bennett said she believes it will result in teachers being afraid to teach, books being banned, incomplete education and students rebelling as it impacts their freedom of speech.
In a previous article with The Outlook, Robert White, professor at Alabama State University, said the bill putting college students in the same category as K-12 students, when it comes to First Amendment rights, is unprecedented.
Cases like Healy v James (1972) ruled that college students have the same access to First Amendment rights as the general public. Meanwhile, cases, like Bethel School district v Fraser (1986), established K-12 students are limited to First Amendment rights when it interferes with the school’s duties.
In terms of higher education, Tyler Coward with Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), during the State Government committee public hearing, spoke about how HB7 jeopardizes HB 498, now Ala. Code § 16-68-3, which protects free speech on college campuses.
Meanwhile in other states, such as Florida with anti-CRT laws in place, high schoolers were banned from enrolling in a college-level course on African American history because it violated the “Stop Woke Act” of 2022.
Bennett noted that the effects that Alabama’s HB7 will have on education are hard to predict as the bill can be interpreted in multiple ways. Not only has there been the Hillcrest High School protest, but also Governor Ivey recently removed the Secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education regarding “woke” material.
Barbara Cooper, former secretary of ADECE, was requested to remove a “woke” book from the Alabama Pre-K resource program titled “National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Developmentally Appropriate Practice Book, 4th Edition,” which Bennett said offered guidance on cultural competence. When Cooper refused, she was allegedly forced to resign.
Bennett said those who do not want to see this bill passed can write to Rep. Ed Oliver about their concerns, attend public hearings, voice their concerns to their local school boards and superintendent, be on the lookout for the ‘divisive concepts’ the bill is not targeting, connect with the students and what they are learning and push back against celebrations of confederacy or historical inaccuracies.
Beginning April 12, HB7 is being read in the House of Representatives. If the house vote passes, it will then move to the senate for a vote.