Talk about race: Mississippi House passes bill to set limits

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Rep. Daryl Porter Jr., D-Summit, asks a question of Rep. Joey Hood, R-Ackerman, unseen, during his presentation of legislation in the House Chamber that would limit how race can be taught in schools and universities in Jackson, Mississippi, Thursday, March 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. – The same Mississippi Legislature that proclaimed racial reconciliation after removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag nearly two years ago passed a bill Thursday to limit how race can be discussed in classrooms.

Several Black legislators said during the six-hour debate that the bill could squelch honest discussion about the harmful effects of racism because parents could complain if history lessons make white children uncomfortable.

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Democratic Rep. Chris Bell of Jackson opposed the bill. He said some people support it because they are fearful of Black people and are fearful of when white people will no longer be in the majority.

“In Mississippi, we always tend to live in the land of purgatory of the most negative things around. This bill adds to that purgatory," Bell said.

The Republican-controlled House voted 75-43 to pass Senate Bill 2113. It will go to Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who has pledged to sign it into law.

The bill's short title says it would prohibit “critical race theory.” But the main text of the bill does not mention or define the theory, and many supporters of the bill also have said they cannot define it.

The bill says no school, community college or university could teach that any “sex, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin is inherently superior or inferior.”

Democratic Rep. Zakiya Summers of Jackson said she has been told by some colleagues that the bill does nothing substantial but it gives them a talking point at election time.

“Censoring teachers, dismantling education bit by bit, attempting to erase the past, refusing to acknowledge the hurt and the horror and the heinous acts that have been done to my people and then hiding behind this ‘inferior versus superior’ argument — that’s what this bill will do,” Summers said.

No legislators gave speeches in support of the bill. Republican Rep. Joey Hood of Ackerman, who is white, did not define critical race theory as he explained the bill Thursday.

“History will continue to be taught — American history, Civil War history, Mississippi history,” Hood said.

When the bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate in January, all of the Black senators withheld their votes and walked out in protest.

Republicans across the country have been raising money by saying critical race theory is a threat and multiple Republican-led states have banned or limited the teaching of critical race theory or similar concepts through laws or administrative actions.

Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines how racism has shaped public policy and institutions such as the legal system, and how those have perpetuated the dominance of white people in society.

State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said critical race theory is not taught in Mississippi schools. The University of Mississippi law school offers an elective class on the theory.

Mississippi has the highest percentage of Black residents of any state — about 38%. Along with other states in the Deep South, including neighboring Alabama, it was a crucible of the civil rights movement.

All House votes for the bill on Thursday came from white Republicans. Of those voting against it, 39 are Black Democrats, two are white Democrats, one is a Black independent and one is a white independent. Four white lawmakers did not vote — two Republicans, one Democrat and one independent.

Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn led efforts to change the state flag in 2020, saying the Confederate symbol was hurtful to many. Voters approved a new flag that features a magnolia, and legislators put the new design into law in early 2021.

Gunn supported the bill Thursday, and immediately after it passed, he commended the House for having a respectful debate.

Gunn, who has been a leader in his Baptist church, also led the House in prayer and said representatives often face difficult issues, including the one Thursday. He asked God for “healing” and said: “We pray that you would not allow this to create division."


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