An attempt to censor discussions about race and gender in the classroom is underway in Wisconsin. This past week, the State Assembly passed a bill that would ban educators from teaching about gender and race discrimination in K-12 public schools. The bill still must be passed by the State Senate and signed by the Governor to become law. The Wisconsin lawmakers that support the bill are attempting to use the bill to bar educators from teaching critical race theory, an academic concept and practice that recognizes systemic racism is deeply ingrained in American society, and related concepts like white privilege and racial equity in schools. This bill doesn’t just set back progress in addressing systemic issues. It also robs young people of inclusive education and blatantly suppresses speech about race. 

Assembly/Senate Bill 411 significantly limits the scope of racial education that teachers would teach students, even going so far as to punish schools that teach racial topics forbidden by the bill. It’s a disservice to students and an affront to democratic values.

Wisconsin’s bill is the latest effort in a nationwide trend of bills attempting to ban talk about race and gender in schools. This past month, 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 recently 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.” 

These lawmakers claim “harmful” and “divisive ideologies” are actually concepts used to educate individuals on systemic barriers and discrimination people of color and other marginalized groups still face in this country. Imagine being a middle school history teacher and not using concepts or terms like “systemic racism” to teach about slavery. Or being a college student in a political theory course and not raising questions about white privilege. This is exactly what Wisconsin lawmakers are trying to make happen. 

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. But rather than engaging with these conversations taking place across the country, lawmakers seek to silence individuals, educators, and young people in Wisconsin 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. We need 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 this law to prevent talk about racism is anathema to free speech. The First Amendment protects the right to share ideas, including the right of individuals to receive information and knowledge. In the university setting, principles of academic freedom protect a professor’s right to make teaching choices without government interference. And even concerning K-12 education, where Wisconsin lawmakers generally have the latitude in determining school curricula, these bills overstep the government’s legitimate authority. Instead of encouraging learning, the bill effectively gags 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 based on 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.  A prohibition on talking about race and racism is a disservice to all students and 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 inclusive education and suppress speech about race. Now, it’s up to the State Senate to reject this bill before it reaches the Governor’s desk for signature. If they balk at this task, we call on Governor Tony Evers to veto this harmful bill.