Florida could ban lessons about discrimination that make white students feel 'discomfort'

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TALLAHASSEE – A Florida bill that would prohibit public schools and private businesses from making white people feel “discomfort” when they are taught or trained about discrimination in the nation’s past was advanced by a Senate committee on Tuesday.

The bill, which echoes a call by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, was met with criticism saying it will spawn censorship, lawsuits and more problems for teachers. The legislation (SB 148) by Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Miami, is said by its sponsor to protect “individual freedoms.”

The measure would bar teaching in grades K-12 that could make individuals feel responsible for historic wrongs because of their race, color, sex or national origin. At work, employment practices or training programs that make an individual feel guilty on similar grounds could be considered an unlawful employment practice – and subject a company to a lawsuit.

Democrats argued the bill isn’t needed, would lead to frivolous lawsuits and would amount to censorship in schools. They asked, without success, for real-life examples of teachers or businesses telling students or employees that they are racist because of their race.

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“This bill’s not for Blacks, this bill was not for any other race. This was directed to make whites not feel bad about what happened years ago,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, who is Black. “At no point did anyone say white people should be held responsible for what happened, but what I would ask my white counterparts is, are you an enabler of what happened or are you going to say we must talk about history?”

The legislation echoes a call by DeSantis, who last month outlined his “Stop WOKE Act,” which he said was to block “wrongs to our kids and employees.”

The new bill reads in part, “An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex. An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”

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“We shouldn’t be teaching students, for example in a diverse classroom, that someone is automatically racist or sexist or anti-immigrant by the sheer nature of their background,” Diaz told the Senate Education Committee.

He added, “We cannot hit the students with that because you’re from this group, you’re automatically sexist or racist. The discussion has to be had for students to critically think and understand what was wrong ... and how we moved past it or haven’t moved past it.”

DeSantis last year got the state Board of Education to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in schools – where it is not currently taught – by saying it is “indoctrinating kids with faddish ideologies.”

Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines if, and how, systems and policies perpetuate racism.

While how widely it influences teaching is debatable, critical race theory has enflamed conservative media and DeSantis has seized on it as an element to stamp out in Florida.

Diaz’s legislation, however, stops short of meeting DeSantis’ demand that students be allowed to sue school boards if critical race theory is taught.

Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. speaks during the Florida Legislature's Organization Session at the Florida Capitol Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020.
Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. speaks during the Florida Legislature's Organization Session at the Florida Capitol Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said that Diaz’s proposal poses a threat to Florida businesses. She said the legislation potentially opens the door to lawsuits against employers, a stand the governor has sought in his “WOKE” proposal to deter companies from policies that may cross the line he’s drawing on race.

Polsky cited an example of a male employee dismissed from a company or passed over for a promotion who could make the claim that employment diversity efforts worked against him.

“How is a judge supposed to determine if a person is made to feel guilty by proper diversity training, sexual harassment training or any kind of policy that a company has in place to prevent discrimination?” Polsky said.

Diaz dismissed that concern.

“The training can be received, just as long as that training doesn’t automatically intimate that that person is guilty of that (wrongdoing) because they’re a member of that group,” Diaz said.

Sen. Lori Berman speaks on the first day of the Florida legislature's 2021 special session on gambling at the Capitol Monday, May 17, 2021.
Sen. Lori Berman speaks on the first day of the Florida legislature's 2021 special session on gambling at the Capitol Monday, May 17, 2021.

But Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, derided the legislation for its “vagueness.”

“If a student feels they’ve been indoctrinated and a teacher disagrees, who decides who’s correct?” Berman asked.

Diaz said such classroom complaints could make their way to the state Board of Education and its Education Practices Commission.

Diaz’s bill cleared the Education Committee on a party-line vote.

Testifying against the measure were such organizations as the NAACP of Florida, the Florida PTA, Equality Florida and the American Civil Liberties Union. Among those favoring the legislation were the Florida Citizens Alliance and the Florida Family Policy Council.

Contributing: The Associated Press.

Follow John Kennedy on Twitter at @JKennedyReport

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida bill could restrict lessons on discrimination at school

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