Critical race theory ban debated at Michigan Senate hearing

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan lawmakers facilitated a close to two-hour debate Tuesday over whether there should be a pre-emptive ban in Michigan schools when on teaching critical race theory.

Supporters of the proposed ban called the curriculum an anti-American Marxist ideology that would teach White students that they and the nation's founding fathers are oppressors.

Bill opponents argued that the theories are not being taught in Michigan public schools and that, if passed, the bill would have a chilling effect on teachers' efforts to incorporate lessons on historical issues such as slavery, the Holocaust and redlining — the discriminatory practice of refusing or limiting housing loans for minorities in certain areas. The comments came during Tuesday's Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee. 

Michigan State Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, argued a proposal to ban the teaching of critical race theory would not end up prohibiting the teaching of certain historical events.

"The fear that comes with this will lead us not from Marxism … but to another M word, which is McCarthyism — this idea that we're going to try and find where racism is being taught and what schools we can find and take away precious resources (from)," said Rema  Vassar, a professor at Eastern Michigan University and member of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees.

Critical race theory is an academic framework that uses the lens of racism to examine history. It is usually used in legal studies and other academia, but has become a point of controversy in Michigan schools and throughout the country. There is no evidence Michigan K-12 teachers are teaching critical race theory but parents have been arguing for and against the merits of the curriculum at school board meetings. 

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Livonia Democrat and former teacher, also voiced opposition to the bill and the penalties that would be enacted on schools found not to be in compliance.

"I’m telling you I would be terrified that something I said about slavery or Jim Crow or redlining or anything else would cause my school district to have 5% of its funding withheld," Polehanki said.

Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, pushed back on allegations that the legislation would prohibit the teaching of certain historical events. 

"What you cannot do is tell students, 'You students are inherently superior or inferior to other students,'" Runestad said. "It has nothing to do with teaching these concepts in history.”

Sen. Kevin Daley, R-Lum, argued that there should be no controversy over the legislation if the principles of critical race theory are already absent from the classroom.

"If it's not taught in the state of Michigan, then there should be no argument about putting a law in place so that it can’t be taught in the state of Michigan," Daley said.

The bill introduced by Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, would prohibit schools districts from teaching critical race theory, the New York Times' 1619 project or other "anti-American and racist theories." Among those theories banned under the bill are the idea that any race is superior or inferior to another; that an individual's race determines their moral character, worth or tendency toward racism; or that the U.S., the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution are racist documents.

Any district in violation of the legislation would have 5% of its funding withheld, according to the bill. 

A similar House bill has already moved through the House Education Committee and is headed to the House floor.

People testifying in committee Tuesday alleged the theories are being preached in many schools without the controversial titles attached. And others testified that diversity, equity and inclusion programs essentially do the same. 

"It’s everywhere," said David Azerrad, an assistant professor and research fellow at Hillsdale College. "It’s just that once it leaves the academy, CRT just doesn’t call itself CRT and instead cloaks itself in the language of justice. Do not waste your time arguing over whether it is or isn’t CRT. Focus instead on the divisive doctrines that trace their lineage to CRT."

State Board of Education member Pamela Pugh, pictured here at a Macomb County mask mandate rally, said a propose ban on critical race theory would empower the state "to hunt down school districts and take funding from school children learning truth about the effects of slavery, the contributions of African Americans, Black Americans, our true history."

Port Huron teacher Tim Keller said race is being used as a "wedge issue" to create a false divide among students. 

"I reject the idea of teaching a student that you’re a victim and by virtue of where you are at because of your skin color are set up for attacks against you,” Keller said. "I would rather focus on what is it that's going to help that student flourish in life."

Others pushed back on dismissals of the teaching of systemic racism, arguing that it is dangerous to ignore the country's uglier history to make students comfortable.

"I’m not understanding why student awareness is harmful,” said Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor. "Is it not our job as educators … to help find what the root causes of that conflict (is) and then help with conflict resolution to bring the students to a  better space, one where there is truth, reconciliation, justice?"

Pamela Pugh, a member of Michigan State Board of Education, said the legislation was not a "healthy way to deal with the truth" and amounted to "self-induced amnesia."

The legislation, she said, would allow the state "to hunt down school districts and take funding from school children learning truth about the effects of slavery, the contributions of African Americans, Black Americans, our true history.

"I oppose the manufacturing of settings like this that are intended to or have the consequences of confusing educators so they give up on teaching true American history," she said. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com