In recent weeks, nine bills have been introduced in seven states to bar the teaching of “divisive concepts” in school, specifically targeting teaching about social justice and systemic racism. These bills reflect a trend seen in the American Library Association’s recently-released Top 10 Challenged Books list. Several bills call out the teaching of the 1619 Project, a curriculum based on a New York Times series that frames US history through the lens of slavery and structural racism. NCAC highlighted a few early versions of these bills here.

The bills would prohibit teaching lessons, materials and books that contain “divisive concepts,” which is defined as any of the following:

  • (A) One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex; 
  • (B) The state or the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist; 
  • (C) An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously; 
  • (D) An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex;
  • (E) Members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex; 
  • (F) An individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex; 
  • (G) An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;
  • (H) Any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex; 
  • (I) Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race; or 
  • (J) The term “divisive concept” includes any other form of race or sex stereotyping or any other form of race or sex scapegoating; “Race or sex stereotyping” means ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status or beliefs to a race or sex, or an individual because of his or her race or sex; and “Race or sex scapegoating” means assigning fault, blame or bias to a race or sex or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex. It also includes any claim that consciously or unconsciously and by virtue of his or her race or sex, members of any race are inherently racist or are inherently inclined to oppress others, or that members of a sex are inherently sexist or inclined to oppress others.

Although several of the bills explicitly allow the discussion of divisive concepts “as part of a larger course of academic instruction [. . .] in an objective manner and without endorsement,” several of them have no such exception.

In addition to conflating teaching (and the critical classroom discussion involved) with indoctrination, the would-be censors behind this legislation are attempting to silence viewpoints with which certain people disagree. The American Library Association’s list of the Top 10 Challenged Books of 2020 shows a dramatic increase in books challenged on the basis of their discussions of racism, social justice and police violence.

In light of these proposed bills, it’s also interesting to note that Laurie Halse Anderson’s classic young adult novel, Speak, has returned to the top 10 list. Since its publication in 1999, Speak has been frequently challenged for its depiction of sexual assault, but this year the challenges included new complaints of an “anti-male” message.

NCAC strongly opposes legislation that limits what teachers can teach and threatens the ability of students to critically engage with a diverse range of ideas and viewpoints, whether they agree or disagree with them.