Equity. Multiculturalism. Patriarchy. Social justice. White supremacy. Uttering any of these words or phrases in a school could land Wisconsinites in trouble, if the state’s Republican-led Assembly gets its way.
On Tuesday, the Assembly passed legislation that Wisconsin Republicans are touting as a ban on teaching “critical race theory.”
Lately, such bills have become a popular—and problematic—conservative agenda item, despite the mockery they sometimes make of free speech and free inquiry. Often, these proposals ban so much as discussing certain concepts related to race and cut off educational examinations of historical events and injustices. In other cases, the measures seem largely performative, purporting to ban the buzzwordy “critical race theory” while in reality prohibiting much narrower and more controversial concepts that there’s no evidence schools are actually condoning (such as the view that one race is better than another).
At first blush, the Wisconsin measure—Assembly Bill (A.B.) 411, passed by a party-line vote of 60–38—seems to fall into the latter category. The bill would ban public schools and independent charter schools from teaching students “that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race or sex,” that “an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by the individual’s race or sex,” and several related concepts. It would also ban schools from training employees in these concepts.
But the bill would actually go further than most, allowing parents to sue “a school district or operator of a charter school for violation of the prohibitions” and, according to co-sponsoring Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R–Muskego), banning nearly 100 words, phrases, and concepts related to culture, race, and sex.
Last month during a joint hearing on education, Wichgers shared a list of terms that could violate A.B. 411 if taught.
These are “terms associated with critical race theory or…part of the praxis of the theory,” he told colleagues in an August 11 letter. “Yes, it’s extensive and you can tell a lot of this was created in legal academia, but the point of this legislation is to prohibit it from being taught in our government schools.”
The frighteningly broad list includes a plethora of perfectly neutral or basic terms—the kinds of words or phrases used to teach about ideas, not necessarily advocate for any particular ones. Wichgers’ list is also rife with concepts far from the academic or political fringe.
For instance, multiculturalism—which just means the presence or support of “several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within a society,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary—and cultural awareness (being cognizant that cultural differences can exist) make the list.
Equity, defined as “the quality of being fair and impartial,” is also on there, along with equitable. So are diversity training, hegemony, intersectionality, marginalized identities, normativity, patriarchy, racial justice, restorative justice, structural bias, systemic bias, and woke.
Wichgers told colleagues his proposal was meant to “prevent government schools from violating” the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, not prevent educators from simply teaching about racism. But it’s hard to see how this assertion jibes with the long list of words and concepts—colorism, racial prejudice, race essentialism, white supremacy—that he claims his legislation could ban.
You can find the full list of words that Wichgers submitted to the Wisconsin Legislature here. These are “terms and concepts…that either wholly violate the above clauses, or which may if taught through the framework of any of the prohibited activities defined above, partially violate the above clauses,” states a note at the top of the list.
Fortunately, Wichgers’ overreaching bill has little chance of becoming law, for now. It’s not yet passed the state’s Senate and—even if it does—would likely be vetoed by Wisconsin’s Democratic governor.
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