Bill regulating race lessons heads to the Florida House

Republican lawmakers have been trying to regulate discussions in Florida’s public schools and private businesses that might make individuals feel or guilt because of their race, gender or national origin.

On Tuesday night, they began to tone down the language amid criticism that they were attempting to “regulate emotions” to stifle American history lessons.

“There were questions about objectivity and what that criteria would be,” state Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, said when he introduced the changes to his “Individual Freedom” bill.

Now, instead of saying discussions should not make individuals feel discomfort or guilt, the proposed measure says teachers and employers should not instruct them to feel that way.

The House Education Employment Committee approved the bill with the changes after more than three hours of emotional testimony from lawmakers and dozens of members of the public, the vast majority of whom were opposed to the measure. The bill is now ready to be considered by the full Florida House.

Even with the changes, critics remain fiercely opposed.

“Your kids are not as colorblind as you think,” said Johana Dauphin, a 20-year-old Florida State University student. “You are more concerned about them feeling guilty than Black kids being terrorized by racist kids who don’t know any better because they were raised by people like you who do things like this.”

Democrats on the committee continue to argue that the Republican-led measure is meant to appease the GOP base as Gov. Ron DeSantis makes the culture war issue a cornerstone of his election-year agenda.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is red meat,” said state Rep. Travaris McCurdy, D-Orlando. “Let’s stop doing the governor’s bidding. He can run his own campaign.”

State Rep. Patricia Williams, D-Pompano Beach, took a more personal approach to criticizing the Republican effort.

“There’s a thing called white privilege, and if you look around this dais, those of you that are pretending that history did not happen, they want to cover it up. I’m disgusted,” she said. “I’m disappointed that I have to walk these halls with you, and I don’t have to call your names because you know who you are.”

But Avila contended that the bill is needed to uphold the principles that “no race is inherently superior to another race” and that “no one race is inherently racist.”

“Now some movements threaten to take us backward, asking us to consider people not as individuals but assigning certain traits and experiences to people based on the group that they fit into,” he said.

He said those “movements confuse and muddle important history and civics lessons” by injecting knowledge into the discussions.

During public comment, Will Hanley, an associate professor of history at Florida State University and a member of the American Historical Association, pushed back against that idea.

“The notion that your teaching can consist entirely of objective facts that are themselves subject to debate, makes no sense to professional historians,” Hanley said.

Addressing ‘discomfort’ and ‘guilt’

As House Republicans fast-track the measure, the evolution in the bill’s language has the potential to make a difference in K-12 classrooms and in workplace training centers moving forward.

As currently written, the bill says that in Florida, students and workers cannot be taught or instructed that they “bear responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” for actions they played no part in, and that were committed by members of their same race, gender or national origin.

If a parent feels their child has been targeted for some reason during the teaching of certain historical events, Avila has explained that they would have “multiple avenues” to address their concerns.

Those include filing a complaint with the Florida Department of Education, going to their school district and voicing their concerns, which could result in the district investigating the matter, he said.

“Certainly, I would hope from an educator standpoint, that the first step would be that the parent and the instructor have a parent-teacher conference to essentially try to take care of any sort of misunderstanding,” Avila argued in the last committee hearing.

State Rep. Kristen Aston Arrington, D-Kissimmee, raised concerns that the legislation is ambiguous on its enforcement.

“Guilt is usually experienced when someone does something themselves that they feel is wrong, not from another person’s actions,” she said.

‘Egregious’ examples

In previous committee hearings, Avila has pointed to specific books and training themes that he thinks are “egregious” and that he hopes the measure will block from being shown to students and employees.

One of the books Avila highlighted is Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” which rose in popularity after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in the summer of 2020.

Avila also pointed to Layla Saad’s book, “Me and White Supremacy,” whose description says “helps white people take action and dismantle the privilege within themselves” so they can “stop (often unconsciously) inflicting damage on people of color.”

He said these books were removed as instructional materials in Broward County Public School after public input. But the district told the Miami Herald on Tuesday that those books are not part of the district’s adopted instructional materials and that school officials are “not aware of any formal challenges to these books.”

The topic of so-called white privilege has also been a main point of contention as the bill is debated by state lawmakers. Not just in the classroom, but in the workplace, too.

Avila has singled out Walt Disney World, Coca-Cola, American Express and Google for corporate training he says would violate the intent of his bill.

Last week, he criticized Walt Disney World for offering a “despicable” workplace training that he said encouraged employees to take and complete a “white privilege checklist.”

“Whether it is training on how to be less oppressive, or less white. All those things should not be occurring,” Avila said. “All of those things are counterproductive to where we want to be as a nation, state, as a community.”

He said the point of the bill is to “make sure everyone feels comfortable in a positive learning environment and positive working environment.”

“With all due respect, you’re way too old to act like you don’t know what white privilege is, so please give it a rest,” Dauphin said.

Balancing histories

In debate, state Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, said he was ratted by the public testimony. In particular, how critics of the bill were shouting at Republican lawmakers to “feel shame.”

“When we can’t all agree that people shouldn’t be treated differently based on an immutable characteristic. That is scary for me moving forward because I am saying people shouldn’t be discriminated against,” Andrade said. “People shouldn’t be harmed or suffer any type of negative consequence because of an immutable characteristic of their own.”

McCurdy argued that he found the proposal as a whole to be “disrespectful” to him as a Black man.

“What’s more uncomfortable, having personal input about the historical, sometimes gross events that have taken place in this nation or being part of a lineage that this legislation seeks to censor?” he said.

Arrington further argued that Republican lawmakers are being hypocrites for supporting a bill that tries to regulate discussion that may make people feel uncomfortable, when just last year they fast-tracked legislation that aimed to stop censorship of conservative voices on social media and promote “intellectual freedom ” in college campuses.

“How can we be so short-sighted to think that everyone has a right to hear what we say, but not what our teachers and students have to say?” Arrington said.

At the request of Avila, the bill now will also require the State Board of Education to develop or adopt a curriculum with “motivating stories of American history that demonstrate important life skills and the principles of individual freedom that enabled individuals to prosper even in the most difficult circumstances.”

This story was originally published February 8, 2022 8:40 PM.

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Ana Ceballos is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. She has covered Florida state government for the Associated Press, Naples Daily News and the News Service of Florida. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she lived in California and Mexico. She has a journalism degree from San Diego State University, where she was the manager of the student-run newspaper.

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