Immediately after gaining nationwide attention for expelling two Black Democratic representatives for supporting a peaceful student protest against gun violence on the House floor, Tennessee Republicans don’t appear to be concerned enough about their now-national reputation as racist grifters that they're willing to put a pause on doing racist things for a few weeks. Last week, the state House joined the state Senate in passing a bill that encourages children and school employees to turn in teachers who mention "divisive concepts" in their classrooms.
WBIR reports on the details. As for what Tennessee lawmakers consider to be "divisive concepts," it's quite the hodgepodge, but it mostly boils down to mentioning racism or sexism in any way that might make a Tennessee Republican school or university student sad. WBIR gives a rundown of banned concepts, and the definition sandwiches no-brainer violations like teaching "that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex" with other, much weirder prohibitions like:
• That a person, by virtue of their race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex
• That a person should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress because of their race or sex
• That a meritocracy is inherently racist, sexist or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex
• That Tennessee or the U.S. is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist
• Promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government
• Promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class or class of people
• Ascribing character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges or beliefs to a race or sex, or to a person because of their race or sex
• That the rule of law does not exist but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups
This appears to mostly be a list of what state Republicans believe "critical race theory" might include, if anyone involved could be bothered to look it up, along with a specific prohibition on insulting the irredeemably racist-ass state of Tennessee, a clarification that you can endorse nonviolent overthrow of the United States government to students but not the violent kind, and a catch-all ban against "promoting division between" or "resentment of" a race, a sex, a religion, or the wealthy billionaire overlords who are murdering our planet for fun while buying themselves legislators willing to pass new laws saying nobody's allowed to promote any resentment towards them because of it.
The bill passed last week, WBIR reports, is premised on "strengthening" a 2022 Republican bill already making those "divisive concepts" illegal, and it adds a few hooks to the existing law. State universities can't use state funds to support organizations that promote "divisive concepts, and are now required to allow any guest speaker on campus regardless of "non-violent political ideology." That requirement is an obvious nod to far-right white nationalist, white supremacist, and antisemitic speakers who have been having a harder time booking gigs now that those events have become notorious for instigating on-campus and near-campus violence.
You might ask how that's going to work out if state universities are 1) required to allow violence-provokers like Jack Posobiec while simultaneously being 2) barred from using state funds to provide security for those events. That's a fine question, and the answer is there's no Republican currently in state office who knows or gives a damn.
The whole bill speaks to a child's view of both free speech and education, but it's just so obviously tailored to curb classroom conversation about systemic racism while at the same time making fringe far-right speech mandatory if there's some performative book-selling jackass who needs a venue and can't convince any properties that aren’t state-owned to host him.
It also fits neatly into that genre of Republican lawmaking that can be summarized as "either this law is brazenly unconstitutional or it's a useless bit of posturing." That's the usual place that Republican bills aimed at intimidating teachers, universities, or everyday Americans end up, with language so intentionally broad that almost anything would appear to be a violation of the law, so long as just one conservative somewhere in the irredeemably racist state can claim to be offended by it.
It's good to know that both of the Black Democrats who Republican lawmakers expelled from the House are back on the job, and immediately back to asking their Republican colleagues to explain themselves. Rep. John Ragan, who introduced the bill, appears to be what the kids today call an "enormous f--kwit."
Rep. Justin Jones (D—Nashville) spoke about the bill when he returned to the House of Representatives after he was expelled and reinstated. He asked a series of questions, such as whether "college students are mature enough to talk about race and systemic racism, some of the concepts you want to prohibit being discussed at the college level?"
"I believe in God. All else is settled by facts and data," Ragan said.
I'm going to guess here that Ragan's educational background consists of writing "God did it" whenever one of his high school classes posed a test question he didn't know the answer to, coupled with a lot of yelling and threats of lawsuits aimed at any teacher who would try to flunk him for it. But that's just a guess. Maybe he's actually capable of answering questions about the bill he's advocating for, but is just so racist that he can't speak to his Black colleague. Hard to say.
Jones was quite blunt in his evaluation of the "racist" law, and not just in pointing out that the bill would seem to plainly ban discussions of systemic racism. "How will we be honest about our history if you're prohibiting any concepts about America's racist history? This sounds like fascism. This sounds like authoritarianism."
The Republican push to ban "divisive" discussions of American racism past and present, new Florida prohibitions against university professors giving expert testimony that contradicts the governor's views, and book bans that have expanded into threats to close public libraries entirely rather than tolerate court rulings that return "disputed" books to the shelves: Yes, it all sounds like fascism. Republicans have lost every cultural war they've joined and have decided that it's democracy that's the problem, not them. And all of it is brazenly meant to be attacks on the rights of Black Americans, on other Americans of color, and on any Americans whose sexual identity is at odds with conservative "beliefs" about what it should be.
Tennessee's Republican lawmakers continue to distinguish themselves as the most overtly racist little snots in government, however, and that is saying something. The state has a history of this stuff: Who could forget the now-infamous episode when Republican lawmakers stumbled on a janitor's mop sink inside House men's room and decided—because why not—that it was actually a "Muslim foot bath" and evidence that the Muslims were infiltrating the state capitol and having hygiene.
That was 10 years ago. In the decade since, those Republicans have gone from anti-Muslim paranoia to pre-packaged "critical race theory" paranoia by way of a whole lot of racist paranoia in between. You'd think they'd want to at least zip it while national news cameras are looking them over, but no. These aren't people who can help themselves.
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It's never too early to start talking about the House! Joining us on this week's edition of The Downballot is Inside Elections' Jacob Rubashkin, who offers his thoughts on the overall playing field and a wide range of key contests. Jacob explains why Lauren Boebert might have an easier time of it in her likely rematch, how some candidates have a "special sauce" that allows them to keep winning difficult districts, and why he thinks Mary Peltola is favored for re-election despite Alaska's persistent red lean.