Republican Tom Kean Jr. swims against the GOP tide on critical race theory

A nationwide attempt to censor discussions of race in the classroom is underway, but while Republican lawmakers across the country have proposed bills banning teaching “divisive concepts” in K-12 public schools and in public colleges and universities GOP Senate Leader Tom Kean Jr. has openly advocated the inclusion of African-American history in New Jersey’s public schools.

Kean stands out for his opposition to target efforts to provide education about gender and race discrimination, including critical race theory, an academic concept and practice that recognizes systemic racism is deeply ingrained in American society and examines how our systems promote inequality.

“Tom Kean Jr. is New Jersey’s leading Republican advocate for critical race theory, a position that sets him apart from more conservative GOP leaders in America,” said James J Devine, a liberal strategist.

As other Republican lawmakers are attempting to bar educators from teaching about critical race theory, white privilege, and systemic racial injustice in their state schools, Kean is a member of New Jersey’s Amistad Commission, which promotes an inclusive education that candidly informs students about racism in America.

Some bills also target government contractors and agencies — inspired by an executive order issued by former President Trump — despite the fact that the EO was struck down in federal court and withdrawn by the Biden administration.

Tennessee Republican lawmakers passed a bill to oppose critical race theory in schools, prohibiting educators from teaching specific concepts like white privilege.

The governor of Idaho also signed a bill to ban critical race theory instruction in all public schools, including universities, claiming critical race theory “exacerbates and inflames divisions” in ways that are “contrary to the unity of the nation.”

Some state lawmakers, such as in Louisiana, have similarly proposed bills banning these teachings under a similar guise, claiming these concepts are “divisive.”

Those bills mimic former President Donald Trump’s order banning diversity training for federal entities and grantees that were deemed “divisive concepts” or “harmful ideologies.” The bills also draw on the 1776 commission report released by the Trump White House and that President Joe Biden rescinded upon taking office.

Most Republican lawmakers claim “harmful ideologies” are lessons that make children feel responsible for discrimination that other people face in American institutions.

Imagine being a middle school history teacher and not being allowed to use concepts or terms like “systemic racism” to teach about slavery. Or being a college student in a political theory course and not being able to raise questions about white privilege. This is exactly what state lawmakers across the country are trying to make happen.

The Black Lives Matter movement has shown that the realities of systemic racism are still alive and well, and the need to dismantle oppressive systems and pursue change is more important than ever.

“When he leaves office next January, Tom Kean, Jr. will have represented his North and Central Jersey constituents for 20 years in both the State Senate and Assembly,” said Governor Phil Murphy. “He has ably carried on the legacy of service that runs deep in his family. We wish Tom all the best as he transitions out of the State House and to a new chapter.”

But rather than engage with these conversations taking place across the country, lawmakers seek to silence individuals, educators, and young people and impose an alternate version of American history — one that erases the legacy of discrimination and lived experiences of Black and Brown people, women and girls, and LGBTQ+ individuals. Our country needs to acknowledge its history of systemic racism and reckon with present day impacts of racial discrimination — this includes being able to teach and talk about these concepts in our schools.

Using these laws to prevent talk about racism is anathema to free speech— a right many conservative lawmakers claim to hold dear. The First Amendment protects the right to share ideas, including the right of listeners to receive information and knowledge. With respect to contractors and grantees, the Ninth Circuit held that the government cannot prohibit private entities from conducting anti-racism trainings just because they accept some public funding. State legislators would do well to heed this ruling.

Likewise, in the university setting, principles of academic freedom protect a professor’s right to make teaching choices without government interference. And even with respect to K-12 education, where states generally have latitude to determine school curricula, these bills overstep the government’s legitimate authority. Instead of encouraging learning, the bills effectively gag educators and students from talking about issues of the most profound national importance, such as the impact of systemic racism in our society. This is a blatant attempt to suppress speech about race these lawmakers disfavor.

Banning conversations about race — and gender and sexuality — in schools also risks maintaining or creating education environments that are unwelcoming to students of color. Researchers and educators recognize that a school-wide approach involving education and training is necessary to combat harassment and bullying on the basis of race and gender. Laws banning conversations about race jeopardize this important work.

Additionally, for students of color, the ability to learn about the experiences and viewpoints of people of color and America’s legacy of racism is critical to feeling connected and equally valued. Outlawing education about racism can alienate students of color from obtaining an education. It also harms the entire student body and risks sewing the very divisions claimed to be avoided.

As the Supreme Court recognized in Brown v. Board of Education, “[e]ducation is the very foundation of good citizenship. … [I]t is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values.” A prohibition on talking about issues of race and racism is a disservice to all students and to society.

This is why it’s critical to protect educators and students’ rights to talk about race and gender in schools. All young people, especially students of color, deserve an inclusive education and the right to express themselves around issues such as race. These anti-critical race theory bills rob young people of an inclusive education and suppress speech about race, and now, it’s up to state governors across the country to veto these harmful bills.

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