The State of Arkansas General Assembly will soon be considering House Bill 1218, a bill that many teachers across the state see as problematic. The bill largely concerns “courses, classes, events and activities that pertain to race, gender, political affiliation, social class or particular classes of people.”
Section 1b of the bill proposes that a public school shall not include in its program of instruction a course, class, event or activity that promotes the overthrowing of the government; promotes division, resentment of, or social justice for any race, gender, political affiliation, social class or particular class of people; is designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group; calls for the solidarity or isolation of a group of students based on the previously mentioned characteristics and religion; violates civil rights laws; or negatively targets specific nationalities or countries.
However, Section 1f states that the bill does not prohibit any federally required class, event, or activity for Native American students; the grouping of “students according to academic performance, including proficiency in the English language, that may result in a disparate impact on students of a particular ethnicity;” or a course, class, event, or activity that includes the “accurate history” of an ethnic group, is open to all students (unless it violates section 1b); includes the discussion of “controversial aspects of history;” or includes lessons on the Holocaust, genocide, or the oppression of a group of people based on ethnicity, race or class.
So, are classes about race banned, or not? Are teachers allowed to talk about the parts of history that have negatively affected people of color, the LGBTQ community, or lower-class people, or can they only talk about the history as long as it does not come off as being “divisive” or “resentful” of the people who have oppressed those communities? What will legislators define as “accurate history”?
Rep. Mark Lowery, the sponsor of the bill, claims that the goal of the bill is to prevent students from being “subjected to humiliation” when there are discussions of inequality in the classroom. One inspiration he has mentioned is the “privilege walk”, where students stand in a line and move forward or backward, depending on certain privileges they hold, such as the marital status of their parents, their economic status, or their race.
Lowery also has proposed House Bill 1232 (called the “Saving American History Act of 2021”), which sought to prohibit the use of public school funds to teach the 1619 Project curriculum, which focuses on the slavery of Africans in Virginia in 1619 as the origin of the United States, rather than the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Lowery claimed the project is “racially divisive and…threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the true principles on which it was founded.”
Indignance at the concept of students learning about history that makes him uncomfortable is not the only thing Lowery’s bills have in common — they also propose that any schools that violate the bills risk losing some of their state funding. For Bill 1218, a school may lose up to 10% of their overall state funding, while for Bill 1232 a school will lose funding “in an amount equal to the cost associated with teaching the 1619 Project.” This isn’t just an attempt to stifle discussions of privilege — it’s almost a hostage situation.
As a student who has done the “privilege walk” several times, I can easily say it has never made me uncomfortable. At worst, it has given me a reality check along the lines of “hmm, my life is better than I thought it was.” Nobody I’ve seen participate in a “privilege walk” has ever been bullied for their results — in fact, aside from a few outliers, nobody really pays attention to other people’s results in that sort of activity. To hear such a benign activity used as a concern worth removing funding from a school over is laughable. Even if there are cases where students genuinely feel bad for their results, those cases should be used as teaching moments, not as something to be avoided outright.
Privilege is not inherently negative. You are not automatically a bad person if you’re a straight white cisgender middle-class man. “Check your privilege” does not mean “vilify yourself,” it means “look at the advantages you have in your life compared to the advantages of others, so that you have a rounded view of the world.”
For example, as a white person I am less likely to have a negative experience with police compared to my friends of color. As a cisgender woman I am less likely to experience fatal violence compared to transgender women. Knowing that I have these privileges reminds me that there are those who are worse off than me, and thus I must work to protect the rights of those without the same advantages I have.
When language such as “division between, resentment of or social justice for a race, gender, political affiliation, social class or particular class of people” appears in House Bill 1218, it feels an awful lot like there are certain races, political affiliations and social classes Lowery seeks to protect by passing this bill. It’s almost as if the bill is not being proposed to protect minorities from being “subjected to humiliation,” but to protect middle-class white Republican kids from having to feel bad about the injustices that have been present in this country from 1619 to 2021. If that is the case, then I have only two words: Boo hoo.
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