Democratic state Rep. LaKeshia Myers, of Milwaukee, speaks on the  floor of the Wisconsin Assembly on Tuesday about the coded language present in so-called 'Critical Race Theory' bills put forward by the chamber's Republican leadership.  (Screenshot via WisEye)
Democratic state Rep. LaKeshia Myers, of Milwaukee, speaks on the floor of the Wisconsin Assembly on Tuesday about the coded language present in so-called 'Critical Race Theory' bills put forward by the chamber's Republican leadership. (Screenshot via WisEye)

Authors of legislation say they want to ban ‘CRT’ in public schools, but the measure instead prohibits a wide range of topics such as white supremacy, equity, and racial justice.

The Republican-led Assembly on Tuesday passed bills that aim to limit the teaching of race and racism in Wisconsin schools and public employee training, but the bills are drawing comparisons to a racist strategy employed by Republicans in the South decades ago.

The bills’ authors claimed they want to ban “critical race theory” (CRT) from public schools, but the legislation itself does not mention the obscure legal theory. Instead, the bills would ban “race or sex stereotyping” and a wide range of topics such as white supremacy, equity, and racial justice, that have been swept up into the national debate over CRT.

To Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee), the bills are reminiscent of the infamous words of Lee Atwater, former adviser to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, when he described the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy.”

In the 1960s, Atwater said Republicans moved away from overt racism such as explicitly saying the N-word because “that hurts you, backfires,” Atwater explained in a 1981 interview. The party began speaking about more “abstract” policies that would hurt Black people and rile up white anger, he said. 

“So you say stuff like, ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights,’ and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, Blacks get hurt worse than whites,” Atwater said.“‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘[N-word, N-word].”

“I was just floored when I learned about this bit of history,” Myers said in Tuesday’s Assembly floor debate. 

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In fact, Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who manufactured the CRT controversy and who was invited to testify before a state Senate committee, has described a similar strategy in his efforts to fight against education about race and racism in the past year. Rufo tweeted in March, “we have decodified the term [CRT] and will recodify it to annex the entire range of culture constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

“This must be a part of Southern Strategy—or Midwest Strategy, GOP Strategy—2.0,” Myers said. “While I noticed that the authors left those three words [critical race theory] out of the bill, they were more than willing to talk about them during the hearing and consistently refer to that particular phrase as something that should not be going on in schools.”

Far Reaching

The bills she was referring to at first read like something the political left would support because they prohibit teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) emphasized that component of the bills during Assembly Republicans’ pre-session press conference.

“It is kind of confusing that if you read the language of the bill, it says that you cannot stereotype people by race. You cannot stereotype people by their religion. You can’t stereotype people by their ethnicity or their gender or their sexual orientation,” Vos said before invoking the words of civil rights legend Martin Luther King, Jr. “We should be a colorblind society that judges everybody based on the content of their character—as somebody much more eloquent than me said—[rather] than on the color of their skin.”

But the bills also bar teaching:

  • “An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously”
  • “An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for acts committed in the past by other individuals of the same race or sex”
  • “An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of the individual’s race or sex”
  • “Systems based on meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or are created by individuals of a particular race to oppress individuals of another race”

Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) authored one of the bills. In his written testimony he provided a list of over 90 terms that he believes could be potential violations of the law, including: diversity, equity, and inclusion; anti-racism; cultural awareness; equity; examine “systems”; oppressor v. oppressed; patriarchy; representation and inclusion; whiteness; and woke.  

It is unclear how teachers could safely speak about topics such as the genocide of Native Americans, the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, or housing and school segregation without violating such restrictions.

Wichgers, during the floor session, gave unattributed anecdotes of teachers going “too far” and said the bill “gives recourse to the parents.” 

“If the school district doesn’t fix it, the school district has been given plenty of time to fix the wrong that’s taking place in the classrooms, and if they don’t, the law’s clear: You cannot teach my child something that is against the values we teach at home,” Wichgers said. 

Walking a Tightrope

The bill says the school has 10 days to remedy the issue before the state superintendent is required to dock district funds. Each reported violation would result in a 10% budget cut for either the school district or the state agency that held the training. Neither of the bills limits how many times a school or state agency could have their budgets cut.

The bill does not make it clear who or what body would determine what constitutes a violation, nor when the violation would be severe enough to result in a 10% budget cut.

Myers recounted how teachers testified before the Assembly committee that “if this was passed, they would feel uncomfortable because they would be walking a tightrope, not knowing what you could say that could eventually get you in trouble and take money away from your district.”

Both bills passed in the Assembly on Tuesday along party lines, 60-38. UpNorthNews reached out to the office of Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg)asking whether the Senate plans to take up the proposals, but did not receive an immediate response.