A Bill About Feelings
Terry H. Schwadron
Jan. 26, 2022
We finally have a bill about feelings.
Set aside decisions about building infrastructure and fixing bridges or creating pre-kindergarten or considering sheltering the homeless or even preserving voting rights –things that governments might do either federally or locally to deal with social problems.
This one is about preservation of emotions.
A bill gained the approval of the Florida Senate Education Committee this week that seeks to bar public schools or workplaces from making people feel “discomfort” or “guilt” about their race during lessons or trainings focused on inequality.
It is unclear what exactly would happen if someone feels discomfort or guilt, or how this bill’s effects would be measured or enforced.
As a columnist for MSNBC wrote: Senate Bill 148, “which should really be called the “sad white people bill,” would “effectively codify white fragility into law,” though it never mentions individual races or backgrounds.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has endorsed the bill, which includes several provisions outlined in his Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act or Stop W.O.K.E., a purported ban on critical race theory that was introduced last month in the state legislature.
Of course, as has been pointed out repeatedly, Critical Race Theory is a college-level area of study not taught in K-12 schools. Nevertheless, the label has been adopted by conservative governors, school board members and parents who object to any teaching that suggests that racism and residual effects of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation are alive and well in these United States.
Funny, the bill doesn’t really lay out what happens if a white Christian majority has teachings that prompt discomfort to Jews, Muslims, blacks, Latinx, Asian American, LBGTQ or transgender students and parents.
Reacting to Critical Race Theory
“Critical Race Theory” has become a rallying cry making the rounds in elections and politics, particularly since The New York Times published its 1619 Project last year aiming to reframe the country’s history around the consequences of slavery.
As Education week explains, “The events of the last decade have increased public awareness about things like housing segregation, the impacts of criminal justice policy in the 1990s, and the legacy of enslavement on Black Americans. But there is much less consensus on what the government’s role should be in righting these past wrongs. Add children and schooling into the mix and the debate becomes especially volatile.”
Like similar efforts to block the specific teaching of critical race theory, now comes the Florida legislation to alter how history is taught, seeking to tamp down suggestions that current-day white majority populations have any responsibility for whatever slavery sins forebears committed.
What’s different here is that this is a bill about feelings: “An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” the bill states. “An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”
Lessons about racism or sexism are allowed, but only if they meet the specific inclusions or deletions outlined in the bill — basically statements that the bill suggests will not offend anyone. School or professional instructors can use lesson plans “to address, in an age-appropriate manner, the topics of sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination,” according to the bill. But “classroom instruction and curriculum may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view inconsistent with the principles of this subsection or state academic standards,” it states.
The governor explains: “In Florida we are taking a stand against the state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory. We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other. The WOKE Act extends similar means “to protect Florida workers against the hostile work environment that is created when large corporations force their employees to endure CRT-inspired ‘training’ and indoctrination.”
The Bill and Feelings
You can read through Senate Bill 148: It promotes teaching of history and content of the Declaration of Independence, equality of all persons, inalienable rights of life, liberty and property, the Federalist papers and flag education. It includes education about the Holocaust and about slavery, adding that teaching must include that no race is superior to others or inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.
Oddly, it strikes language about mental health from the list of health topics and retains the rights of parents to exempt students from some health topics touching on sex.
This particular bill does not address library books, as in some states, but does repeat the rights of parents to raise challenges.
The governor argues that this bill would build on existing rules that already part of the Florida administrative code. They specifically state that teachings based on CRT, saying, “instruction on the required topics must be factual and objective, and may not suppress or distort significant historical events.” He offered a curated list of incidents nationally in which he argues the spirit of critical race theory is coloring lessons in school and workplace trainings.
A much different reading is offered by a strident MSNBC columnist Ja’han Jones who argues, “Educating people about the inhumane ways white people positioned themselves atop America’s social hierarchy is a direct threat to the racist power structure. White people are most likely to feel discomforted by these lessons. . . it’s clear that the Florida bill is designed to coddle white people, even though it doesn’t mention them specifically.
The columnist adds, “So, to clarify: Florida conservatives are prioritizing white hypersensitivity over truthful teachings. They’re apparently saying lessons about America’s racist and sexist past are acceptable only if they don’t offend white people.”
A realistic snapshot of America today would reflect lots of race problems, and substantial frustration arising from them in multiple directions.
What I hadn’t really seen was a bill directed at feelings rather than acts. If feelings are the new measure, one might imagine a wholesale remake of our laws. After all, there’s a lot that makes me uncomfortable, starting with bills like this.