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Critical race theory ban leads Oklahoma college to cancel class that taught ‘white privilege’

Melissa Smith's college course on race and ethnicity is canceled for the summer as school officials evaluate it in light of a new Oklahoma law. (Photo courtesy American Federation of Teachers)

Melissa Smith says she has never used the words “critical race theory” in her community college course on race and ethnicity. Her syllabus does ask students to learn about racial inequality in the United States — from health to criminal justice to housing — and to “recognize the extent of privilege, prejudice, and discrimination in our society.”

Smith, 38, said she remembers taking a similar course at the University of Central Oklahoma in the early 2000s.

“These classes have been taught forever,” said the adjunct professor.

But Oklahoma is among a wave of Republican-led states scrutinizing and seeking to reshape how teachers talk about race. This month, the governor signed what many refer to as a ban on critical race theory in schools — a bill, he said, that would make sure taxpayer money is not used “to define and divide young Oklahomans about their race or sex.”

A week and a half later, Smith learned her fully enrolled class at Oklahoma City Community College was canceled for the summer. It’s been her primary course for several years.

“[After] learning more about HB/SB 1775 and how it essentially revokes any ability to teach critical race theory, including discussions of white privilege, from required courses in Oklahoma … we recognized that HB/SB 1775 would require substantial changes to the curriculum for this class particularly,” Erick Worrell, a spokesman for the college, wrote in an email Friday to The Washington Post.

Worrell said the course is not gone, but “paused.” The college believes in teaching about racism, he said. But administrators wanted “more time to get this right — or to let the legal issues play out with other universities and colleges before we teach it again in its current form.”

The struggle over Smith’s course, first reported by KOCO 5 News, shows how the political furor over an abstract and often-misunderstood concept is taking real effect in classrooms, curbing certain discussions after a year of American soul-searching about race.

Republican supporters say these statewide bans targeting certain teaching are meant to prevent groupthink and shaming of White students or teachers as oppressors. Oklahoma’s new law, for instance, says public school classes should not include the idea that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” It also bars teaching the idea that anyone’s race or sex determines their “moral character” or makes them “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Critics say these bills are misconstruing the more nuanced treatments of racism unfolding in schools. They worry about a chilling effect on teaching of critical issues.

“Our history of the United States is uncomfortable and it should make us uncomfortable and we should grow from that,” Smith said in an interview Friday. “And I tell my kids all the time, get comfortable being uncomfortable. And if I don’t make you uncomfortable in class then I’m not doing my job.”

“I don’t know any professors or teachers who teach that one race is superior to another,” she added. “We teach that … one race and one sex have privileges and that there are, again, inequalities that we need to address.

What is critical race theory, and why do Republicans want to ban it in schools?

Teaching on race and racism is a fiercely partisan issue, with the academic lens of “critical race theory” becoming a catchall term and a flash point for broader culture wars. The theory, which dates back to the 1970s, holds that racism is systemic and embedded in policies rather than just perpetuated by bigoted people, creating barriers for people of color in myriad spheres of life.

The killing of George Floyd and mass protests that followed pushed schools to incorporate more teaching on systemic racism and also prompted conservative backlash. Former president Donald Trump last year told federal agencies to stop trainings linked to critical race theory, and his administration commissioned a report — panned by many historians — that it billed as seeking to restore “patriotic education.” A focal point for conservatives was the New York Times’s 1619 Project, published in 2019 and incorporated into some schools’ curriculum amid debate that continues to make headlines.

President Biden quickly rescinded Trump’s measures, but Republicans’ campaigns against critical race theory have continued in statehouses. Arkansas, Idaho, Tennessee and Texas have passed bans similar to Oklahoma’s, and Republican lawmakers elsewhere are pressing to do the same.

These bills have drawn pushback from some school districts, advocacy groups and legal experts. The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized a “nationwide attempt to censor discussions of race in the classroom,” while University of Alabama law professor Ronald J. Krotoszynski Jr. argued in The Post this week that laws like Oklahoma’s are “both misguided and unconstitutional.”

In Oklahoma City — where Smith teaches both community college and high school students — the city board of education denounced the ban. Board member Ruth Veales, who is Black and Native American, said the legislation was an “insult” in a district that’s mostly students of color, according to the Oklahoman, and Superintendent Sean McDaniel has called it a “solution looking for a problem which does not exist.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) said the law should not keep educators from broaching dark history such as the Tulsa Race Massacre and the Trail of Tears.

“To be sure, we must keep teaching history in all of its complexities and encourage honest and tough conversations about our painful past,” he said in a video posted online, arguing: “Nothing in this bill prevents or discourages those conversations.”

Smith is caught in the middle.

On May 7, the day the governor signed the bill into law, her department reached out to say they had “fielded a higher-than-usual number of concerns in the past few weeks about how sociology courses are handling the topic of race,” according to an email Smith shared with The Post.

None of those concerns came from Smith’s students, the email said, but higher-ups said they believed it “wouldn’t hurt to put additional measures in place” to “emphasize that students are encouraged to express diverse views in open, respectful ways” and that teachers understand the material can cause discomfort.

Worrell, the college spokesman, said that a “more conservative” student and her father had felt uncomfortable in a past instance of the course — not taught by Smith — because the class discussed White privilege and rising extremism in the U.S. School and department leaders did not see problems with the concept of the class, Worrell said, but found issues with communications on an online discussion board. They made recommendations to ensure that students in social science classes felt safe dissenting from others, he said.

On May 18, Smith got another email: Her course was “facing challenges (and specific complaints) in light of the new HB 1775 law.”

Oklahoma City Community College says it has made sure that students who needed Smith’s course for their requirements can enroll in something else. Smith is getting compensated for the class that was halted, Worrell added, and it remains scheduled for the fall.

But Smith, who is White, said Friday it is “just ridiculous” that her course apparently cannot teach about White privilege if Oklahoma’s law remains in place.

She said she typically tackles the subject with lots of questions: “What is your definition of privilege? What does that mean?” She also remembered giving students example of privilege from her own life and seeing “the lightbulb go off.”

“That is what I’m sad won’t be happening,” she said.

Read more:

The devastation of the Tulsa Race Massacre

Sen. Tom Cotton wants to take ‘The 1619 Project’ out of classrooms. His efforts have kept it in the spotlight.

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