Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves declared a victory today as he signed a bill into law that he and other Republican lawmakers have falsely claimed would ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in the state’s public schools and community colleges.
In a pre-taped video that the governor posted to his social-media channels this afternoon, Reeves painted a grim portrait of an America in which, he claims, “critical race theory is running amok.”
“Students are being force-fed an unhealthy dose of progressive fundamentalism that runs counter to the principles of America’s founding. Children are dragged to the front of the classroom and are coerced to declare themselves as oppressors, that that they should feel guilty because of the color of their skin, or that they are inherently a victim because of their race,” the governor said he signed Senate Bill 2113, a bill that neither bans nor describes critical race theory.
He did not point to any real-life examples of the scenario he described happening in Mississippi, though he may have been referring to a single alleged incident at a public charter school in Las Vegas, Nev.
‘A Maddening Mess’
The bill’s short title is “Critical Race Theory; prohibit,” but the text of the bill never mentions it, saying only that schools cannot teach or force students to affirm that “any sex, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin is inherently superior or inferior.”
As Mississippi State Superintendent Carey Wright said last year, critical race theory is not taught in Mississippi’s K-12 schools despite some conservative lawmakers’ claims to the contrary. Last June, Gov. Reeves told SuperTalk Mississippi radio host Paul Gallo that he was “not aware of any school district that currently allows for” the teaching of critical race theory in Mississippi and that he did not think a law banning it would be necessary unless that changed.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines CRT as an “intellectual movement” that examines race as “a socially constructed category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color” and not a biological reality.
In a Twitter thread on March 9, University of Mississippi School of Law Professor Yvette Butler, who teaches the state’s only critical race theory law-school course, said she will not call S.B. 2113 an “anti-CRT bill” because it “has nothing to do with Critical Race Theory.”
“CRT is opposed to the belief that any race is inherently inferior or superior, if by ‘inherent’ we mean ‘biological,’ ‘unchangeable,’ or ‘essential,’” she said. “… We all know CRT talks about superiority/inferiority, but what does it actually say? It says that race is a social construct. It says the law played a role in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchies and attaching value judgements and legal benefits/burdens to race.”
As an example, she pointed to a 1790 law Congress passed that said only “free white persons” could be naturalized citizens.
“Courts then issued a number of decisions attempting to use ‘common knowledge’ to argue that certain people were/weren’t ‘white.’ It was a hilarious, maddening mess, with some groups being ‘white’ one year and ‘not white’ just a few years from then and vice versa,” Butler tweeted.
Senate Bill 2113 passed with support from only white Republicans. All Black lawmakers in the Mississippi House and Senate voted against the bill, with Black senators staging a walkout in January. During debate in the House earlier this month, Rep. Otis Anthony, D-Indianola, pointed to a national right-wing effort to pass legislation targeting critical race theory, calling them “outside agitators.”
“Outside agitators” is a phrase that white segregationists commonly used during the 1960s to describe civil rights activists from out-of-state, but Anthony turned the phrase on its head as he pointed to nationally funded right-wing campaigns to ban the teaching of the nation’s racist past and present.
Last year, Mississippi Center For Public Policy President Douglas Carswell, a former member of the British Parliament who helped lead the Brexit campaign in his own country, called for the state to ban critical race theory. Since last year, wealthy Republican donors and business executives have poured millions into anti-critical race theory campaigns. But during his videotaped remarks today, Gov. Reeves painted an alternative version of the story.
“I want to set the record straight about critical race theory because the radical left and the media continue to spread misinformation on this critical issue,” he said. “And while they may be ok lying to you, I believe you deserve the truth. Across this great country, we’re seeing a full-court press by a vocal minority of well-organized and well-funded activists who seek to tear down the unity that has helped make our country great.”
The anti-critical race theory crusade began with efforts to ban “The 1619 Project” by Nikole Hannah-Jones from classrooms, though a bill that would have done so in Mississippi died during the 2021 legislative session.
The effort has since grown to target not only teaching about race and the nation’s often brutal history, but other books and materials nationwide, including books like “The Hate U Give” by Mississippi author Angie Thomas. Other book-banning efforts have targeted LGBTQ topics, as seen with the ongoing saga over public-library books in Ridgeland, Miss.
In other states nationwide, conservative activists have backed legislation more explicitly targeting educators who teach about racism, claiming that doing so can infringe upon the rights of white students or make them feel inferior. In Florida, Republicans approved a bill that would prohibit public schools and private businesses from making people feel “guilt” or “discomfort” because of their race. No such provisions are in the Mississippi Senate bill, however.
‘We Cannot Sanitize The Story’
In social-media posts announcing the bill signing today, though, Gov. Reeves claimed that critical race theory “threatens the integrity of our kids’ education and aims only to humiliate and indoctrinate.”
On the Senate floor in January, the bill’s author, Hernando Republican Sen. Michael McLendon, admitted that he was not aware of critical race theory being taught in any Mississippi classrooms (lawmakers similarly could not name any examples of transgender athletic participation causing problems in Mississippi last year when they approved a bill banning transgender students from school sports).
“But I did have enough constituents that were concerned over this, over national news—and I know you can take national news with a grain of salt—but there were so many issues and concerns that people had about this,” McLendon told fellow lawmakers as he defended Senate Bill 2113 on the Senate floor in January.
After signing the so-called “critical race theory” bill today, Gov. Reeves made a series of predictions.
“Now, I can almost guarantee what will happen next,” he said. “First, critical race theory proponents will claim that this law prevents the teaching of history. They’ll claim that our kids won’t learn about important historical events like slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. But we know the truth. Contrary to what some critics claim, this bill in no way, in no shape and in no form prohibits the teaching of history.”
While the text of the bill does not do those things, lawmakers who voted against it and other opponents have raised concerns that the bill will cause confusion and chill classroom speech. In other states, white activists have used the specter of “CRT” as a catch-all phrase to fight against the use of books that teach about a variety of historical topics, such as the story of Ruby Bridges during school integration in New Orleans.
“Why is SB 2113 such a big deal? The bill is broad, vague and allows the State to strip funding from schools for violating it,” Yvette Butler, the UM Law School professor, wrote on March 9. “Educators need to teach about the past and present. Students are perceptive. They see things like melanated kids wearing hoodies being pushed against walls by teachers. They see a high police presence in BIPOC neighborhoods.
“They experience generational poverty because their (families) have always lived in a segregated neighborhood where the Federal Housing Administration refused to insure mortgages. … But the history isn’t all bad. Progress wasn’t made by black people alone. There are stories to be told about collaboration and allyship and resilience and joy. But we cannot sanitize the story just because it makes people uncomfortable.”