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Pushing Back Against DEI Bans and Book Bans
It's a small but important start
Back in January I titled one of these newsletters “Florida: Where Bad Ideas Are Born”. While it focused on what was happening at New College of Florida, it also raised concerns about the redefinition of CRT and the teaching of history. I worried then about how other states would follow in a similar path.
Unfortunately, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. As reasonable as that position might be (and I would never tell a student how they must feel), too many others don’t want such clarity because it gets in the way of their larger political ambitions. For now, it may be to “stick it to the libs” but in the long run it gives freedom to very serious abuses.
One thing we’ve learned about conservative legislative efforts is that they like to play copycat.1 In recent days, we’ve seen anti-DEI legislation proposed or passed in Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Ohio. Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education provided an update on their DEI tracker (shown below).
While I’m surprised that the Chronicle geographically flipped Utah and Colorado, the map shows the extent of the copycat issue, especially in red states.2
Not only do these bills make teaching much of anything in the social sciences or nineteenth and twentieth century history nearly impossible, they do so based on a (potentially intentional) misstatement of what DEI is all about popular on the right.
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A New York Times story yesterday on Tim Scott’s impending (now occurred) presidential announcement included this paragraph from black conservative talk show host Larry Elder:
“I think the commonality of virtually all Black conservatives is that we don’t think we’re victims,” said Mr. Elder, who has emphasized his roots in both California and the segregated South. “We don’t believe we’re oppressed. We don’t believe that we’re owed anything.” He and Mr. Scott share a belief in “hard work and education and self-improvement,” Mr. Elder added. “So it would not surprise me that he and I are saying the same things, if not in different ways.”
It ought to go without saying that DEI initiatives and CRT approaches to not teach victimization and oppression nor deny the importance of effort and education3. But the critics have dominated the rhetorical battlefield.
Another example of the same distortion of DEI. The Chronicle reported that a professor interested in applying for a position at UC Santa Cruz has sued the university arguing that the application procedures calling for candidates to submit a diversity statement violated his First Amendment rights. He’s quoted in the Chronicle:
Haltigan argues in the lawsuit that Santa Cruz uses diversity statements to screen out job applicants who do not hold specific views, “including the view that treating individuals differently based on their race or sex is desirable.” He claims that his views on “colorblind inclusivity,” “viewpoint diversity,” and “merit-based evaluation” mean that he cannot truthfully compete for the position, which involves receiving a high score on a rubric used to evaluate candidates.
The actual diversity statement requirement does not mandate particular views or phrases. Its introduction says:
Diversity statements typically do one or more of the following: 1) give examples of a candidate’s past contributions to diversity, 2) demonstrate an understanding of the particular diversity and equity related issues and needs in a candidate’s field, or in higher education more generally, and/or 3) discuss the candidate’s vision for how they might make contributions to diversity in the future.
The full document outlines the ways in which concern over diversity is essentially a pedagogical matter, identifying learning styles, differing backgrounds of first generation students, or concerns faced by underrepresented populations can impede learning.
Given these various distortions of DEI and CRT being established in copycat legislation, it’s easy to get depressed about where this is all going. But there is still reason for hope, even if its not going to be found in our legislative chambers.
In a newsletter after last month’s fiasco involving the expulsion of two Tennessee legislators (followed by their almost immediate reappointment), I had written the following:
But when the states are trying to enact their policies without consideration of varying views (or expelling those who hold such views), the experiments of the states break down. They aren’t trying out a policy innovation to see how it might scale up. They are doing whatever they want because they have the votes, at least for now.
Small-d democratic norms require the diversity of voices to have a way into legislative decisions. Attempts to squelch those voices lead to bad and dangerous policy.
Without those voices, we must place our hopes in two other sources: the courts and public. For the former, interested parties can attempt to gain standing to block onerous legislation from taking effect but that doesn’t get better legislation in its place. For the latter, we can take great solace from those students in Nashville and Colorado who have protested for gun safety. And we can be happy with the kind of political organizing that took place in Wisconsin.
But it’s a long road ahead that will be characterized by twists and turns, potholes, dead-ends, and speed traps. (emphasis added)
Recent events have shown that we are moving toward those two sources. Boards of Trustees, like those of The Ohio State University, are pushing back on their legislatures acknowledging how hard it will be to hire or retain their faculty. Groups organized an alternative commencement for the New College of Florida graduates to celebrate the diversity they have come to celebrate.
The most impressive public and court response has come with regard to textbooks and library resources. I recently saw a video (can’t find it) of parents challenging their local school board over library books.4 They were upset that a minority of conservative activists had made complaints and argued that this did not reflect their values. In that particular school district, the bans were reversed.
Even more important is the lawsuit filed against a Florida school board to stop book banning. Filed jointly by PEN America (a First Amendment organization), Penguin Random House publishers, and concerned parents, it enjoins the district from banning books dealing with race or LGBTQ identity:
According to the lawsuit, the school board’s removal and restriction of access to books discussing race, racism, and LGBTQ identities, against the recommendations of the district review committee charged with evaluating book challenges, violates the First Amendment. By ignoring these recommendations, the school district made clear that its interests are in censoring certain ideas and viewpoints, not pedagogy, and that it is willing to allow an extremist minority to substitute its political agenda for the judgment of educators and parents.
The lawsuit further contends that the school district and school board are violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution because the books being singled out are disproportionately books by non-white and/or LGBTQ authors, and often address themes or topics related to race or LGBTQ identity.
Late last week, the Department Education’s Office of Civil Rights warned Georgia’s Forsyth County schools that their actions regarding book banning might have violated students’ civil rights:
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights released its findings in a letter Friday wrapping up its investigation into Forsyth County Schools’ 2022 decision to pull nearly a dozen books from shelves after parents complained of titles’ sexual and LGBTQ content. To resolve the investigation, the district north of Atlanta agreed to offer “supportive measures” to students affected by the book removals and to administer a school climate survey, per the letter.
Lawsuits are certain to follow, which is a good thing. As school districts defend their policy decisions in court, they will be required to show the actual, not imagined, harm that their policies were attempting to address. Because both the book bans and the anti-DEI/CRT crusades are essentially bad faith, performative, political efforts, defending those stances will be difficult.5
This is not to minimize the damage these legislators are causing or the impact it will have on student learning (and college readiness). It is, however, to argue that this is but the first volley in a long and protracted conflict. It’s essential that those committed to quality education for all stay in the game.
(Speaking of games — GO NUGGETS!)
This is not an accident. Groups like ALEC develop model legislation that can be easily modified to fit particular statutes in a host state. The Associated Press reported over the weekend that the anti-trangender bills flooding red state legislatures come directly from a non-profit titled Do No Harm (headed by a kidney specialist) and the Family Research Council.
Texas, Georgia, and Florida are all working to weaken the protections of tenure.
Today’s Inside Higher Ed had an interesting story about how UC Davis had combined cultural affinity groups with academic and mental health supports. The students would be more likely to take advantage of the latter two in the context of the former. If your goal is rewarding hard work through educational achievement, it takes a unique perspective to see that as a bad thing.
It looks like I will start a two-year term on the board of my granddaughter’s charter school beginning in July. While this isn’t an issue there, I wanted to be active in case these reactionary voices show up.
See “Stop The Steal”