Are Lawmakers Pushing to Censor Discussions of Race and Gender in Classrooms and the Workplace?

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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Florida GOP lawmakers are working to expand provisions in the state’s Civil Rights Act to protect individuals from being subjected to certain instructional materials regarding race or sex in Florida’s classrooms and workplaces, potentially leading to civil actions or administrative proceedings.

At issue is an ongoing effort from the DeSantis administration to dictate how race and other topics are discussed in schools, as well as an increasing effort to limit the freedom of private businesses to make decisions for their companies.

Rep. Bryan Avila, a Republican who represents part of Miami-Dade County and the sponsor of HB 7, says that the legislation is an affirmation that people will not be judged by characteristics such as race or sex.

“This bill makes it clear, that in Florida, people will be judged as individuals — by their words, their characters, and their actions,” Avila said at a Wednesday House Judiciary Committee meeting. The bill passed 14 to 7 (with one vote missing), and with Democrats in opposition.

Rep. Dianne Hart (Florida House of Representatives)

“This bill cripples the ability for teachers to teach effectively,” said Rep. Dianne Hart, who represents part of Hillsborough County, said at the Wednesday meeting.

“Every teacher I’ve ever encountered, does their job from not only an academic standpoint, but from a personal one,” Hart said. It is their personal experiences that they use to make the curriculum come alive for their students. Even more so for the Black and Brown students on the topic of race and discrimination.”

HB 7 expands the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992, according to the bill analysis, which “secures for all individuals within the state freedom from discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age, handicap, or marital status.”

The bill affects areas of education and employment, saying that individuals should not be subjected to training or materials that espouse principles such as:

  • “Members of one race, color, national origin, or sex are morally superior to members of another race, color, national origin, or sex.”
  • “A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
  • “A person’s moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, national origin, or sex.”
  • “A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex bears responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.”
  • “A person should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex.”

These principles would also apply to students and school employees under the Florida Educational Equity Act, should the bill become law. There is a Senate version of the bill also moving through the 2022 legislative session.

“Those are principles that I think each and everyone of us — whether you’re a Democrat, whether you’re a Republican, whether you’re an Independent — I think everyone would agree that when you look at those principles, no one would disagree with any one of those principles,” Avila said at the Wednesday committee meeting.

Ben Diamond, a Democrat who represents part of Pinellas County, is opposed to the bill.

“What we’re prepared to do is to say that if a business is engaged in the perfectly lawful exercise of diversity training, and someone in the business feels a sense of guilt or sense of anguish or has some emotional reaction to that, they can sue. How is this helping our businesses in our state?” Diamond said.

Much of the debate and public testimony centered around the bill’s effect on schools and whether it would curtail frank discussions about United States history and race.

Aliva said that the bill does not “ban the teaching of historical facts about slavery, about sexism, about racial oppression, racial segregation, or racial discrimination.”

But many of the Democratic lawmakers disagreed.

At issue is an ongoing effort to dictate how race and other topics are discussed in classrooms.

In June, the Florida State Board of Education approved a new rule that prohibits critical race theory in classrooms, claiming that the theory “distorts historical events” and is “inconsistent” with the state board’s approved standards. The new rule also banned materials from The New York Times’ “1619 project,” which focuses the establishment of the United States from perspective of Black people.

Rep. Hart brought up this attack on Critical Race Theory in debate on HB 7 Wednesday.

“Critical Race Theory is not even taught in K-12 schools. It’s, of course, used in law schools to increase understanding of the implication of laws. So the question becomes: What is this really about?”

Ida Eskamani, representing the group Florida Rising and Florida Immigrant Coalition, said during public testimony:

“This legislation is a part of a dangerous and shameful nationwide agenda to censor discussions of race and gender equality in the classrooms and the workplace.”

“These bills don’t just set back progress this nation has made in addressing racism and sexism, they also rob young people of a fact-based education and blatantly suppresses speech about race, gender, and our collective history,” she continued.

She is the sister of Democrat Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando.  She noted that a school district in Central Florida recently canceled a professor’s lecture on civil rights “because these policies are creating a climate of fear among historians.”

According to the Orlando Sentinel from earlier this week: “A Flagler College history professor planned to spend an hour Saturday teaching Osceola County teachers about the civil rights movement, his area of expertise.

But days before the workshop, the school district canceled the event because administrators wanted to vet the materials to make sure they did not run afoul of Florida’s new rule banning “critical race theory,” or CRT, in schools.”

But supporters of these initiatives to limit how race is discussed in classrooms and in the workplace claim that certain teaching and materials espouse that a person’s race or sex determine a person’s character.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Republican who represents part of Pinellas County, said in a written statement Wednesday:

“These movements have tried to hijack the important conversation about race and use it as a pretext to attack institutions– ranging from capitalism to the very idea of objective truth in the hard sciences.”

Sprowls continued: “They want to use the sins of the past to shut down dissent in the present. HB 7 ensures Florida’s workplaces and schools are places where we can have healthy dialogues about race or diversity without losing sight that we are all, first and foremost, unique individuals.”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

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