Louisiana Bill Criminalizes Teaching Authentic History
Representative Ray Garofalo, the head of Louisiana’s House Education Committee, recently introduced House Bill 564 to address “training with respect to certain concepts related to race and sex in elementary and secondary schools and postsecondary education institutions.” The bill defines “training” as “the teaching and education of a student or employee by means of lecturing or textbooks, audiovisual materials, or any other kind of reference materials.” Much of HB 564 is plagiarized from Section 2 of Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13950, which was recently revoked.
There are two, among many, dangerous components of this legislation.
Minimizing Systemic Racism and Sexism
- “That either the United States of America or the state of Louisiana is fundamentally, institutionally, or systemically racist or sexist.”
This arbitrary wording is paradoxical. It implies racism and sexism exist, especially when educators discuss them as pervasive problems, but it renders it illegal to teach that these issues are fundamental, institutionalized, or systemic. This presents a conundrum for myself, a United States history teacher.
History teachers have an obligation to provide students with the truth of the foundation of our country, scars and all. In 1787, the framers included the Three-fifths Compromise in the Constitution. This infamous compromise was an agreement between Northern and Southern states that the enslaved population, over a half-a-million souls, would be represented as three-fifths of a person in the House of Representatives. Granting slaveholding states the right to count three-fifths of their enslaved population in terms of representation provided these states overrepresentation in national politics. The Compromise dehumanized people based on race; it was blatantly racist. Thus, it is a clear example of institutionalized, systemic racism that was “fundamental” to the founding of our country.
Denying women the right to vote or divorce abusive husbands was a decision also left to institutions. These systems were not simply practiced by a few bad apples; it was legitimized and perpetuated by “institutions” like Rep. Garofalo would like to protect with this piece of new legislation. It was systemic by any definition of the word system. Downplaying the systemic nature of slavery and gender discrimination minimizes the vast experiences felt by millions held in literal and figurative bondage. Moreover, it erases the resilience of those who fought and died struggling against structural racism, from slave insurrections to civil rights activists.
Ignoring the systemic nature of these issues and attributing them solely to a few misguided individuals is not only inaccurate, but it prevents us from addressing them. An inability to confront these issues will hinder students’ ability to draft solutions to our most pressing and ongoing issues. Ignoring how both past and present systems perpetuate racism and sexism locks us to the status quo.
At a practical level, the implementation of the bill gets muddled in legalistic terms. Are we supposed to teach that systemic racism and sexism exist, but they are divorced from Louisiana and the United States? Or, is this bill written from a perspective denying that institutionalized racism and sexism exists at all? In either case, a governing body crafting legislation outlawing the teaching of the realities based on these viewpoints epitomize institutionalized racism and sexism.
I understand the wording of this provision is designed to promote a sense of loyalty and to frame those with legitimate grievances as unpatriotic. However, teaching students the truth of the foundation of our country, highlighting the systems that perpetuated slavery, genocide, and sexism, and creating space for students to address their lingering impacts are components of true patriotism. Unlike blind nationalism, true patriotism seeks to actually improve the lives of those who inhabit this land.
Sacrificing History to Preserve White Comfort
- “That any individual should feel or be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological or emotional distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.”
This provision is a dangerously slippery slope. Are teachers supposed to avoid discussing how humans held in bondage were tortured, or how enslaved families were often separated from each other, because it may cause guilt? Are we to ignore the institutional policies that led to massive death during the Trail of Tears or avoid teaching the testimonies of the US soldiers who conducted the Sand Creek massacre because it may cause discomfort? Any person who learns this history will experience discomfort if they are able to empathize, because this history is not easy to internalize, and understandably so. It cannot be understated that this legislation will pave the way for the suppression of Black and Indigenous history, histories already marginalized in schools.
I, as a white man, often experience discomfort as a history teacher, and I have learned to embrace and utilize it in productive ways. It holds me accountable and grants me the motivation needed to provide an accurate history that includes multiple perspectives different from those who resemble me.
On the first day of class, I notify students that teaching authentic history will inevitably cause discomfort and that we must embrace it. Discomfort, when understood, is a powerful weapon and often leads to productive action. Teachers should not deny our students’ history because it may cause discomfort; it is our task to grapple with it together. To teach history by trying to avoid discomfort is to teach a fantasy that will merely shield students from the realities, both historical and contemporary, of our world. Obscuring the scars of our country solely to preserve comfort does a grave injustice to survivors and their descendants, and robs all who benefit from this history.
Lastly, this bill adds an additional burden to an already arduous profession and carries heavy implications. It implies that teachers and schools are broadly engaging in unpatriotic behavior and that strict legislation is necessary to curtail it. If it’s not an issue, then why is this reactionary legislation needed? It reeks of those who feel “whiteness” is under assault and needed to go on the offensive. It echoes the tiresome anti-teacher talking point that educators are teaching anti-American, leftist propaganda. It is reminiscent of an outdated Cold War mentality.
If teachers are believed to have violated this legislation, who in the government would be qualified to determine guilt? What will be the consequence? How would they be reprimanded? Would they simply be fired? Would they be brought in front of a committee — similar to what transpired during McCarthyism?
Contact your representatives if you’re concerned about this affront to our teachers and students. I have reached out to Rep. Garofalo, my representative, and his assistant replied that Rep. Garofalo has “his hands full” and is “not planning on doing any pre-committee discussions.”