“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.” — Frederick Douglass What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? (1852)
The proposed Senate Bill 377 serves as nothing more than a coded bill aimed at limiting the dissemination of information to students, faculty, and staff, and to the stifling of educational inquiry in the classroom. As the parent of children in the Georgia school system and as an educator with twenty years of experience in the classroom in both K-12 and the postsecondary level, I am disturbed by this proposed bill.
While I agree with some aspects of this bill, notably that “divisive concepts” such as stating that “one race or ethnicity is inherently superior to another race or ethnicity” or that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race, skin color, or ethnicity” are wrong, through and through; I see some of the other “divisive concepts” as hindering educators’ ability to successfully engage with students and have important conversations that affect them in the classroom. These include the “divisive concepts” that “the United States of America and the State of Georgia are fundamentally or systematically racist” and that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or were created by individuals of a particular race to oppress individuals of another race.” Even though I disagree with these statements on face value, that is not what I want to focus on; instead, I want to focus on why presenting these as “divisive concepts” hinders educators and places them in a catch 22.
Later, the bill states that nothing in the revised section “shall be construed to do any of the following.” It states that it will not “prohibit the discussion of divisive concepts, as part of a larger course of instruction, in an objective manner and without endorsement” and that it will not “prohibit the use of curriculum that address topics of slavery, racial or ethnic oppression, racial or ethnic segregation, or racial or ethnic discrimination, including topics relating to the enactment and enforcement of laws resulting in such oppression, segregation, and discrimination.”
Following the Georgia Standards of Excellence (GSE), students in 8th grade history learn about the history of Georgia from colonization through the present, including the removal of Indigenous communities, the Civil War, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Era, and more. In United States History, they learn about a myriad of topics, including Japanese incarceration during World War II. The ELA standards ask students to identify rhetorical aspects of texts and to examine foundational literary works, including multicultural texts.
Now, what could I teach under this bill? According to the bill I would not be prohibited from teaching something like Frederick Douglass’ What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? (1852), Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech (1963), or even George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy (2019) to provide a few examples. Each of these texts deals with a different topic: with slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese incarceration.
I would not, under the bill, be prohibited from teaching these texts. However, each of these texts contains things that would fall under “divisive concepts.” Douglass argues that the United States is fundamentally racist. King argues the same, even stating, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. “ Takei’s graphic novel, which focuses on his own experiences as a young child being incarcerated during World War II draws connections to contemporary border policies.
Even if an ELA teacher uses F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in class, they could face discipline because that novel challenges meritocracy and the American Dream in the United States. What if the teacher pairs The Great Gatsby with something like Ann Petry’s The Street or Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun? Both Hansberry and Petry argue in those works that racism undergirds the belief in meritocracy and the American Dream.
Even if an educator presents these texts and examines them “without endorsement,” the educator could still face consequences from the disciplinary apparatus proposed because each of these texts, even though focusing squarely on history and literature present “divisive concepts” under the bill. A student could oppose the text, even though the text adheres to things that can be taught and complain to a parent or guardian because some aspect makes them feel uncomfortable. Then, the disciplinary apparatus comes into action. What if the educator, adhering to everything, gets disciplined or let go for merely teaching works that have been in the classroom, in some cases, for decades?
I know that this letter focuses mainly on K-12, but the same applies to the other sections in the bill that address postsecondary education, technical colleges, and the state government. By enacting this bill, you are opening the door for individuals seek action against educators at all levels who disagree with them. You are hindering individuals from grappling with the truths about the past that affect the present. You are doing what W.E.B. DuBois said the Dunning School of history did with Reconstruction. You are engaging in “a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans.”
Because of all of this, and more, I urge you to withdraw SB 377 from consideration.