COLUMBUS, Ohio — A debate over teaching the role of racism in American history was highlighted Wednesday as a committee weighed two bills before Ohio legislators that would prohibit such instruction.
Teaching that focuses on the effect of racism on society would be prohibited in Ohio's K-12 classrooms under a pair of bills introduced by Republican state lawmakers in May that are similar to legislation introduced nationwide by GOP lawmakers.
Critical race theory is part of a scholarly movement that examines U.S. history and modern society through a focus on the legacy of slavery, racism and discrimination. Critics say it proposes that the United States is a fundamentally racist country.
Although the theory has been around for decades, conservatives more recently began focusing on it as a way to oppose classroom efforts to discuss topics related to race and racism. Such pushback became stronger following the country's reckoning over racial injustice and police brutality in the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, who was Black, by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Instructing students that one race or gender is inherently superior to another or that individuals could be considered racist by virtue of their skin color would be prohibited under a bill introduced by GOP state Reps. Diane Grendell of Chesterland and Sarah Arthur of Geneva-on-the-Lake. That legislation in general prohibits the teaching or promoting of "divisive concepts" in the classroom.
A second bill introduced by Rep. Don Jones of Freeport contains similar provisions and also prohibits teaching that the advent of slavery constituted the true founding of the United States.
The House State and Local Government Committee heard more than three hours of testimony on the bills Wednesday. Most speakers opposed the legislation, although dozens of people on both sides have submitted testimony to the committee. Committee Chairman Rep. Scott Wiggam, a Wooster Republican, said another hearing will be held.
If passed, the legislation could hamper teachers' abilities to discuss topics from the U.S. internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II to the Tulsa massacre, said Scott DiMauro, a social studies teacher in Worthington in suburban Columbus and president of the Ohio Education Association. Rampaging white mobs killed as many as 300 Black people and leveled an entire neighborhood in the 1921 Tulsa attack.
"There are so many elements of our history that are uncomfortable that require a deep dive from multiple perspectives to really think critically in order to fully understand our history," DiMauro told the committee.
Painful historical subjects should not be shied away from or sugarcoated, said opponent Rachel Belenker of Columbus.
"My great aunts, six of them, who were killed in the Holocaust, did not die in order for our society to understand 'both sides' and discuss their murders objectively," Belenker said.
Supporters of the legislation said nothing in the bills prevents discussion of painful historical topics. The goal is to avoid assigning blame for wrongdoing to anyone based on their skin color or gender, they argued.
"To feel guilty or feel like you did it personally is what we don't want," Grendell said.
Despite the GOP legislation, there's little evidence that the critical race theory is being taught in K-12 schools in Ohio or elsewhere. Opponents of the legislation say the concept is being misconstrued and is a way to discuss the role of racism in society, such as discrimination in bank loans.
Neither Ohio bill uses the phrase critical race theory, though Jones criticized the concept by name in a news release.
Jones has called the theory anti-American, saying "it is designed to look at everything from a 'race first' lens, which is the very definition of racism." Similar bans have been proposed by lawmakers in at least 16 other states.