WVU professors speak against bill on race, identity teaching

By Leah Willingham - Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A proposed law that would dictate how lessons on race and identity can be taught in public K-12 schools and even universities was roundly criticized at the Capitol on Monday after the West Virginia Senate passed it last week.

Several West Virginia University professors said the law would stifle freedom of expression in their classrooms.

“We’re concerned that this bill will limit the ability of faculty to exercise those rights to design educational content,” said the WVU Faculty Senate’s chair-elect, engineering professor Scott Wayne.

The bill creates a reporting mechanism for people “aggrieved by an alleged violation” to complain about educators to school authorities, state officials and ultimately the legislature.

The bill is being considered by the GOP-led Education Committee, but its members didn’t have to attend the hearing on the House floor. Of the 29 people who signed up to speak, only four supported the bill, none of them educators. Each was given two minutes, and many were cut off mid-sentence.

Like similar legislation advancing in Republican-led legislatures around the nation, the “Anti-Racism Act of 2022” would prohibit teaching that any race or “biological sex” is superior or that students should feel guilty because of their identity. West Virginia’s goes farther than some, applying not only to K-12 settings but higher education as well.

Students should not be taught that “academic achievement, meritocracy, or traits such as hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race, ethnic group or biological sex to oppress” another, the bill says.

Such language has caused confusion about whether teaching about such topics as the lingering effects of slavery is acceptable, witnesses said.

Senate Bill 498 also says students should not be made to feel “discomfort, guilt or anguish” because of their identity. Republican lawmakers have said they want to prevent the teaching of concepts like “white privilege” in classrooms.

The bill also prohibits teaching that any person’s moral character is determined by their identity, that any one group is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive;” or that people should be discriminated against or “receive adverse treatment” because of their identity.

Republican Sen. Patricia Rucker, the bill’s sponsor and a Hispanic woman, said she has no data on whether children are actually being taught to discriminate against others based on their identities, but some citizens believe that they are, and she wants to alleviate those concerns.

But state and federal law already protect against such discrimination, said Bonnie Brown, who coordinates Native American studies at WVU.

“Students and employees in the state of West Virginia who feel that they have been wronged in some of the ways spelled out in the prohibited concepts section of this bill already have the opportunity to file civil rights violations,” Brown said.

Critical conversations around issues like race can be uncomfortable sometimes, but that’s a feeling that should be leaned into, said Rosemary Hathaway, an English professor at WVU.

“It’s meant to be challenging, not in an offensive or threatening way, but in a way that says, ‘Think a little bit more. Try out this other perspective,’” Hathaway said.

Professor Cari Carpenter said the bill would limit the conversations she has with students in her courses on women’s and Native American literature — conversations they come ready and wanting to have.

“To suppress those thoughts would be, in my eyes, cruel,” Carpenter said.

By Leah Willingham

Associated Press