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North Dakota House advances bill that would ban critical race theory in K-12 schools

The bill was largely supported by the state's conservative representatives, with only two Republicans, Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, and Rep. George Keiser, R-Bismarck, voting against it.

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North Dakota Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, speaks during a committee meeting at the state Capitol on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — The North Dakota House of Representatives approved a bill Thursday, Nov. 11, that would prohibit the teaching of critical race theory, with one lawmaker describing it as a "poison" seeping into the minds of K-12 students statewide.

After a House vote of 76-16, the bill will now go to the Senate for consideration. If passed by senators and signed by the governor, the bill would ban the teaching of critical race theory, an academic framework that's become a hot-button issue for conservative pundits across the country, in K-12 schools.

Some lawmakers argued the bill's advancement is a result of a targeted political campaign aimed at bolstering passionate reactions and controlling conversations about race in the United States.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, defines critical race theory as "the theory that racism is not merely the product of learned individual bias or prejudice, but that racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality."

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ND critical race theory bill by inforumdocs on Scribd

Lawmakers acknowledged that critical race theory is not being taught in North Dakota's public schools, but some like Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, said they want to stamp it out now because they've heard from parents that it is being taught "in a covert manner."

"Critical race theory is not about specific historical incidents. It's about teaching children that the socioeconomic structures we have in place in the United States are specifically designed and implemented to keep people of minority races down," Becker said. "It's inherently evil."

The term "critical race theory" is more than 40 years old, though the scholars who coined the term say the way the theory is being discussed today in no way resembles their original definition. The theory taught in college-level classes supposes that racism is still ingrained in America’s institutions and that the repercussions of slavery and Jim Crow still disproportionately affect Black people and other people of color.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School professor, is one of the scholars credited with coining the term. She told The New York Times earlier this year that critical race theory is "a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analyzing the ways that race is produced."

At least 12 states, including Montana and South Dakota, have taken state-level action or passed legislation to restrict the teaching of critical race theory, according to an analysis by Education Week. These bills either name critical race theory explicitly or restrict how teachers discuss racism and sexism.

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The American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota is among the groups opposed to the proposed ban on critical race theory in the state .

"By clearly targeting discussion related to critical race theory ... it is natural that many will interpret a ban on 'critical race theory' to mean a ban on discussing or raising issue of race in the classroom at all," said Libby Skarin, campaigns director for the ACLU of North Dakota, in written testimony. "This ambiguity will inevitably lead to a chilling effect on speech, which will create an environment in which teachers across North Dakota fear mentioning race in any context."

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Screenshot via the North Dakota Legislature

The bill was largely supported by the state's conservative representatives, with only two Republicans, Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, and Rep. George Keiser, R-Bismarck, voting against it.

Roers Jones urged her colleagues to oppose the bill Thursday, saying the special session was not the time to consider a bill on critical race theory and that lawmakers should take a more concerted effort to understand the ways in which critical race theory exists in schools, if at all, before they move to ban it.

"I challenge each of you to think in your mind 'What is critical race theory?' Can you define it, and what issue, what topics would we be prohibited from teaching?" Roers Jones said on the House floor.

Though the theory was created more than 40 years ago, the debate in many states today stems from conservative activist Christopher Rufo. Rufo has said he grew concerned about how some city governments taught their employees diversity training and saw critical race theory as an ideal way for conservatives to organize against that kind of teaching.

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He made frequent appearances on Fox News stating that institutions, including K-12 schools, were teaching students that white people were racist and the U.S. was villainous, which is widely acknowledged not to be an actual understanding of critical race theory.

"It has absolutely no place in our curriculum being taught as a topic or a subject," Rep. Terry Jones, R-New Town, said Thursday. "I wouldn't feed my children poison, and I don't want our teachers feeding our students, my constituents and family and friends, poison. And that's all critical race theory is."

The bill advanced by the House has no penalty for teachers who may violate the law. It's unclear whether teaching about explicitly racist public policy, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S., would violate the law.

In September 2020, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring federal agencies from training employees that the U.S. was inherently racist or that one race was superior to another. President Joe Biden later rescinded this executive order.

"By hiding these issues from our students, we're not preparing them to live in the world," Roers Jones said Thursday.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

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Screenshot via the North Dakota Legislature

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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