Critical Race Theory Explainer

In this May 25, 2021 photo, a man holds up a sign against Critical Race Theory during a protest outside a Washoe County School District board meeting in Reno, Nev. Developed in the 1970s and '80s, critical race theory is a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism. It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of whites.

OKLAHOMA CITY — The ACLU and a group of multi-racial advocacy organizations and educators have sued state officials over the constitutionality of a new law that restricts discussions on race and gender in school in an attempt to ban “critical race theory” teachings in public schools.

House Bill 1775 is an “unprecedented and unconstitutional censorship” of discussions about race and gender in schools, and severely restricts discussions without a legitimate justification and uses sweeping and unclear language, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court. It was filed against a slew of defendants, including Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, the State Board of Education, Gov. Kevin Stitt, and the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents.

Since becoming law July 1, Oklahoma educators have begun banning books written by Black and female authors — including “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “I Know why the Caged Bird Sings,” and a “A Raisin in the Sun” — and educators have been forced to adapt educational approaches amid fears of running afoul of the law while Black student leaders at the University of Oklahoma “now face heightened levels of racial and gender hostility and harassment,” according to the lawsuit.

The new law also bans mandatory gender and sexual diversity training for students enrolled in Oklahoma colleges and universities,

Plaintiffs include an unnamed Black Muskogee Public Schools teacher and Chickasha Public Schools principal, who are both members of the NAACP, along with an OU professors group, the Black Emergency Response Team — a group of Black student leaders at OU — the American Indian Movement Indian Territory, and OU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

All claim the law has had a “chilling effect” on speech, has limited access to essential information, curtailed their ability to teach or learn about race and gender-related topics, or forbidden them to conduct necessary training on “difficult topics” designed to improve curriculum inclusivity and the environment at the school.

“The Act’s vague, overbroad and viewpoint discriminatory provisions leave Oklahoma educators with an impossible — and unconstitutional — choice: avoid topics related to race or sex in class materials and discussions or risk losing their teaching licenses for violating the law,” the lawsuit says.

The groups say the bill violates the First and 14th Amendments and are seeking a preliminary injunction to immediately stop the bill.

State Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, the measure’s House author, has said critical race theorists are pressing a narrative about gender and race in America. The critical race theory movement attempts to examine how race intersects with American society, and how that legacy of racism shapes issues today.

West, who is not named in the lawsuit, said via text after the lawsuit was filed that it is “unfortunate, but not surprising to see the radical leftist organizations supporting the racist indoctrination of our children” that the new law was written to stop.

“The law ensures that all history is taught in schools without shaming the children of today into blaming themselves for problems of the past, as the radical leftists would prefer,” he said. “The legal complaint is fully of half-truths, and in some cases blatant lies, meant to generate sensationalist media coverage that, once again, distorts a common sense bill the vast majority of Oklahomans support.”

In a Twitter post, O’Connor, the attorney general, said he looked forward to defending House Bill 1775 against “these activists who do not share our Oklahoma values.”

“The Legislature and the Governor were wise to prevent the teaching of our children that one race or sex inherently is superior to another race or sex,” he said.

Stitt, Hofmeister, and the University of Oklahoma did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening.

“HB 1775 censors and chills the way Oklahoma teachers and students discuss fraught topics in state and U.S. history, particularly regarding racial mistreatment and injustice,” said Anthony Douglas, president of the Oklahoma chapter of the NAACP. “Educators cannot adequately teach students about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, World War II, the Holocaust or any other cultural issue throughout U.S. history by silencing courageous conversations that depict a more inclusive perspective of U.S. History.”

Lilly Amechi, a BERT member, said the bill “is a direct attack on the education experience of the Black community specifically, and marginalized communities at large on campus.”

“We believe all students deserve to have a free and open exchange about our history — not one that erases the legacy of discrimination and lived experiences of Black and Brown people, women and girls, and LGBTQ+ individuals,” Amechi said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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