In yet another vote along race and party lines, a pair of “divisive concepts” bills will advance in the Alabama legislature.
The Republican-backed legislation, resurrected this year despite pushback from educators and civil rights groups, prohibits public schools, colleges and other state agencies from promoting certain “divisive topics” related to race, sex or religion.
SB247, authored by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, and 20 other Republican co-sponsors, was approved in committee Wednesday in a 7-3 vote. The three Democrats on the committee, all of whom are Black, voted against the legislation after a second public hearing on the topic.
“What we need to address are the systems, not individuals,” said Sen. Robert Stewart, D-Selma, recounting how his grandfather was denied a loan from the Veterans Association, and how his great-grandparents, who were sharecroppers, couldn’t own the land they tended.
“I feel like this bill is a guise to prohibit educating future generations so we can be more informed, so we can be better citizens, so we can be a better nation,” he said.
Read more: ‘Divisive concepts’ bill returns to Alabama legislature, called ‘slap in the face’
Barfoot’s bill is similar to HB7, another divisive concepts bill awaiting a vote in the House. Ed Oliver, R-Dadeville, filed HB7 in January after an original bill died in the Senate last year.
On the stand Wednesday, Oliver said the Senate bill does not stop the teaching of slavery or Black history, but instead prohibits the teaching of “extreme” concepts.
“What this bill does is it stops a new woke ideology that divides people, adults and children alike,” he said.
Oliver did not explain what “woke” meant, though the term has been used lately to criticize classroom lessons and teaching material that discuss concepts like equity, LGBTQ issues and systemic racism.
Oliver, this year, whittled down the number of banned concepts and now includes a few more protections for college professors.
But a companion bill could walk back some of those changes.
Barfoot’s Senate bill would now restrict educators from teaching two concepts that, after debate, were struck from original legislation last year:
- That meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist.
- Anything contrary to the fact that, with respect to American values, slavery and racism are deviations from, betrayals of, and failures to live up to the founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.
“Who is saying to a white person or white professor or their white student that you are at fault?” Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Jefferson County, asked committee members before the vote. “Where are they doing that? Do we have documented evidence? Can we quantify that these things are happening?”
“Divisive concepts” bills first emerged after a 2020 Executive Order from former President Donald Trump, which targeted diversity training in government institutions and took aim at critical race theory, a 50-year-old legal concept typically taught in law school classes.
A 2023 study from UCLA Law identified more than 500 anti-CRT measures across local and state governments since 2020. Nearly half – 241– were enacted or adopted and 41% used the term “divisive concept.”
Oliver said earlier versions of his bill were based on a template from conservative activist Christopher Rufo.
The bill’s proponents included representatives of the Eagle Forum, a conservative organization that has been pushing the legislation heavily since it was introduced last year.
At the hearing Wednesday, Patrick Hermann, a professor emeritus at the University of Alabama, said he taught critical race theory and Marxist theory – both concepts that Oliver has vocally opposed – but “did not indoctrinate” college students or ask them to agree with those theories.
“Teaching about divisive theories is not itself divisive, but it can be used in a divisive, indoctrinatory, politicized way that doesn’t do anything good for our students or serve the state of Alabama,” he said.
Hermann said he supported the legislation. He brought along several colleagues – including Earl Tilford of Alabamians for Academic Excellence and Integrity, a group formed in 2021 to advocate for education rooted in “Western thought” – to speak in favor of the bill.
Tilford, at the hearing, called diversity, equity and inclusion “cover words for transforming our universities” and “producing activists who will then go on to transform America throughout its culture.” His organization’s website, which also links to works from Rufo, accuses college DEI programs of promoting “far-left woke ideology.”
“SB247 returns our universities to the pursuit of excellence based on merit, and the concept that all people should be assessed on their capabilities, character and performance, not their race, skin color, gender or sexual orientation,” he said.
‘Leave our children out of it’
The Alabama State Board of Education banned critical race theory in October 2021, despite claiming it was not taught in K-12 classrooms. Last year, lawmakers also passed a law that banned some discussion of LGBTQ topics in classroom.
In committee Wednesday, K-12 educators, advocates and lawmakers said current and proposed legislation already creates a chilling effect in classrooms.
Stevie Rae Hicks, a teacher in Montgomery, said the bill “distorts the truth” about what’s actually being taught in the classroom, and would make an already fatigued teaching workforce even more “fearful and anxious.”
Robert White, a pastor and 30-year educator who was high school classmates with Oliver, mentioned the recent mass shooting that rattled their hometown of Dadeville. He questioned why legislators were more focused on ideology than issues like youth gun violence.
Camille Bennet, founder of Project Say Something, called the bill another example of “dog whistle politics,” that has already impacted some local schools. She mentioned a recent student walkout in Hillcrest over censorship of a Black History Month program.
“The omission and erasure of Black history itself is divisive,” she said. “Leave our children out of it.”
Before the vote, Coleman noted that her cousin, a science teacher, had recently received pushback after proposing a lesson on environmental racism. The board couldn’t approve of the lesson, Coleman said, because of the “political climate” in Alabama.
Sen. Linda Coleman Madison, D-Birmingham, also mentioned the recent firing of Barbara Cooper, the state’s early childhood chief, over what Gov. Kay Ivey called a “woke” pre-K training resource.
She said she would reconsider the bill if lawmakers worked to make it bipartisan.
“It’s a lot of mistrust around this bill because a lot of things have gone on,” she said. “We need to address the elephant in the room.”
SB247 will head to the Senate for a vote, while HB7 heads to the House floor.