News, Off campus

State Senate Passes Bill Against ‘Divisive Concepts’

Troy Smith, a history professor at Tennessee Tech and local historian, poses beside an award given to him by Tennessee’s Senate honoring his work five years ago. Now, he says, they want to change how he works.
Photo by Megan Reagan.

A bill targeting what legislators are calling “divisive concepts” passed in the Tennessee Senate Monday, March 24.

The bill, critics say, is yet another attack on what Tennessee legislators consider to be critical race theory and targets “divisive concepts” at Tennessee’s public colleges and universities.

While critical race theory was never used by name, the bill’s supporters mentioned it urging the passing of the legislation.

Similar bills have been proposed in Indiana, South Dakota and Georgia — among other states.

The bill defines “divisive concepts” as: one race or sex is inherently superior or inferior to another race or sex; an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously; and an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race or sex — just to name a few.

Tech professor and local historian Troy Smith is one of the critics.

“What sort of precedent does this set for academic freedom and free speech?” he asked. “Things I find disturbing in the bill is that it will be illegal to say that a person, consciously or subconsciously, could be inherently privileged.”

Smith said he teaches Brown vs. Board of Education where one of the main pieces is a sociological study.

“It was a husband-and-wife sociology team, and they took children and gave them an array of baby dolls in different shapes, sizes and colors – ranging from really light and really dark. They asked them which is smart, which is dumb … which is good, and which is bad. And they always picked the dark for the most negative and the light for the most positive. Even the black children made those same choices,” he said. “Their parents didn’t sit down and tell them, ‘Hey, you’re inferior.’ They absorbed it from what they were seeing in society. That is exactly what they’re telling me I can’t teach.”

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said the goal is to ensure “students are taught the subjects they sign up for.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said the bill’s goal is to “protect students” and is “proactive, not reactive.”

However, Tech students – especially those studying history – are alarmed that the legislation is nearing its final approval.

Elijah Farmer, a senior history major, says the bill would greatly affect his education by erasing and limiting many topics of discussion in the sphere of history in higher education.

“Any class that teaches about slavery in America, Native American history, African American history, all majors about diversity or gender, and all offices regarding those topics would essentially be eliminated from the educational sphere, thus furthering systematic oppression,” he said. “By taking all those topics out of education, students will not receive a critical knowledge that plays into the everyday structures that have been founded upon and expanded upon by education in those fields.”

Addie Cox, a Tech junior and history major, also opposes the bill.

“Laws like this do not protect from division. They cause it by discouraging students from thinking for themselves and allowing them the freedom to use their intellect and challenge ideas,” she said. “Most concerningly, the law’s broadness easily challenges the existence of the Tennessee Tech’s Department of Multicultural Affairs.”

Savannah Hunter, also a Tennessee Tech junior, believes the law would greatly affect her areas of study which include art history, women and gender studies, and race and ethnic studies.

“My women and gender studies minor, and race and ethnic studies will be completely erased if this bill is passed,” she said. “My minors talk about the effects of racist pasts and the solid truth of history. History is not perfect. It is raw, vile, and if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable then what’s the point of learning about true history.”

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, the bill’s sponsor, said it doesn’t ban teaching these concepts like last year’s legislation because college professors have stronger First Amendment protections than K-12 teachers.

However, many academic professionals, like Smith, in higher education fear this bill because despite having stronger First Amendment protections, the bill raises the opportunity for litigation to be filed against the university and the faculty.

“What a lot of people who support this want us to say is that these things happen because of a handful of bad people, not because of society at large,” he said. “But slavery was the law and those who opposed slavery were the ones breaking the law.”

Smith said teaching these subjects allows people to understand the context of the world we’re living in, why things are as they are, how people have worked to change things and why.

Tech Chief Communication Officer Karen Lykins said via email, “We are committed to abiding by all laws passed by Tennessee’s State Legislature, and we will follow the requirements in any bill passed this legislative session.”

The bill is now on its way back to the House for additional approval before its final stop on Gov. Bill Lee’s desk.

“If we don’t talk about those things, then you can’t talk about finding solutions,” Smith said.