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The Florida House approves restrictions on race-based teaching in classrooms and workplaces

Bryan Avila (l) with Chris Sprowls at podium
Florida House of Representatives
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“This bill makes it clear that in Florida, people will be judged as individuals by their words, by their character, and by their actions — not by their race, by their sex or by their national origin,” said bill sponsor Bryan Avila, left, with House Speaker Chris Sprowls.

In part, the bill targets diversity, equity, and inclusion training in workplaces, effectively allowing employees to sue if such a conversation could make a person feel badly about themselves.

The Florida House has approved restrictions on how issues of race and history can be discussed in public school classrooms and workplaces. The measure was approved on a party-line vote and over the objection of Democrats who argue the proposal will suppress real issues for the sake of protecting the feelings of people who haven’t been historically marginalized.

House Bill 7 is a direct response to what Gov. Ron DeSantis and fellow Republicans see as a liberal agenda gone too far. DeSantis calls the measure the “STOP WOKE” Act and while the bill itself does not mention Critical Race Theory — a concept that examines how racism has influenced government policy — the governor has made it known that he is not a supporter of it. The bill also targets diversity, equity, and inclusion training in workplaces, effectively allowing employees to sue if such a conversation could make a person feel badly about themselves. Speaking to reporters ahead of the House vote, Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Hillsborough, called the bill regressive and suppressive.

"There’s been a narrative this session of suppressing stories. Suppressing the stories of women and not considering their lives and context when it comes to that 15-week abortion ban. LGBTQ youth and their families when it comes to the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. And now we’re suppressing the history and the stories and the lived experience of Black people,” she said.

During Thursday’s debate on HB 7 Democrats expressed concern over its potentially silencing effect on teachers who will ultimately have to figure out what they can, and can’t say about the uglier parts of American history.

“Whose life will this bill change for the better?” said Rep. Tray McCurdy, a Democrat who represents parts of Orange County. “This bill is sending a clear message that we don’t trust our teachers.”

This measure comes on the heels of social justice protests following the death of George Floyd, and the New York Times’ 1619 project which examines American history with slavery front and center. It also follows backlash against high-profile politicians and celebrities accused of sexual assault.

“We are not past racism,” said Rep. Kelli Skidmore, D-Palm Beach. “We are not past sexism ... We are past truth,” she said in her criticism of the bill.

Democrats unanimously opposed the measure, despite an amendment by Rep. Chris Benjamin, D-Miami, gaining the chamber’s approval. Under Benjamin’s amendment, “Instructional personnel may facilitate discussions and use curricula to address, in an age-appropriate manner, how the individual freedoms of persons have been infringed by slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination, as well as topics relating to the enactment and enforcement of laws resulting in racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination and how recognition of these freedoms has overturned these unjust laws.”

Still, classrooms would remain subject to the same language around trying to prevent students from feeling badly about themselves.

“However, classroom instruction and curriculum may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view inconsistent with the principles enumerated in subsection (3) or the state academic standards.”

While Democrats, see the proposal as discriminatory, Republicans view it as race-agnostic.

“This bill makes it clear that in Florida, people will be judged as individuals by their words, by their character, and by their actions — not by their race, by their sex or by their national origin,” said sponsor Bryan Avila, a Miami Springs Republican.

Republicans argue people should be judged by their actions and not by the past. Yet that’s now how the world works, say critics, and bills should reflect the reality of now.

A similar measure is awaiting a final hearing by the Senate’s Rules committee before it can be considered by the full chamber.
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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.