The state Capitol dome at sunset on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

A bill titled “Critical race theory; prohibit” passed the House Universities and Colleges Committee Monday along racial lines with all African American representatives opposing the measure and all white House members supporting it.

Senate Bill 2113 passed 14-9 with no changes from how it passed the Senate earlier this session. All those who voted in favor of the bill were Republican. If it passes the House in the coming days with no changes, it will go straight to Gov. Tate Reeves for his signature.

“Why do we bring this egregious bill up when we all get along?” asked Rep. Greg Holloway, D-Hazlehurst. “We are all trying to work together.”

Instead of debating an issue that no one can identify as a problem in Mississippi, Holloway said, legislators could be working to solve issues actually impacting the state.

Both Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn have been vocal opponents of critical race theory, though, they have not been able to identify any instances of the college-level academic framework being taught in kindergarten through 12th grade schools.

All African American members of the Senate walked out earlier this session on the day the measure passed the upper chamber.

Based on the discussion in the House Universities and Colleges Committee Monday, debate also will be contentious when the issue is brought up in the coming days on the House floor.

Critical race theory has been depicted by conservative media outlets and many Republican politicians as an effort in the public schools and universities to teach discrimination and to divide students by race. Supporters of critical race theory, which is generally taught as a college level class, say it is designed to address issues of institutional racism that still exists in society.

The text of the bill, as Rep. Joey Hood, R-Ackerman, who presented the bill to the committee pointed out, simply said no university, community college or public school “shall direct or compel students to affirm that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin is inherently superior or that individuals should be adversely treated based on such characteristics.”

But tying the bill to critical race theory is seen by many as an attempt to appease those who oppose discussions of past and current racial shortcomings of the state and nation. The governor has proposed providing funds to schools willing to teach “patriotic” history classes. The Legislature has balked at that recommendation.

Rep. Cheikh Taylor, D-Starkville, said “Critical race theory is…nothing to do with finger pointing or shaming. It has everything to do with searching out institutional racism” and trying to address it.

Rep. Lataisha Jackson, D-Como, questioned whether teachers might be afraid to broach the issue of racism because of the bill. Jackson said she fears, based on the bill, someone might try to penalize African American teachers who tried to address such subjects in their classroom.

While the title of the bill says the teaching of critical race theory is prohibited, Hood conceded that nowhere in the bill is critical race theory defined.

Taylor asked if he could offer an amendment to take out any reference to critical race theory in the legislation. Rep. Donnie Scoggin, Ellisville, who presided over the contentious hearing as vice chair of the committee, told Taylor he would “recommend” that no amendments be offered.

Scoggin said he made the recommendation to prevent additional “arguments” about the bill in the committee hearing.

“They can argue on the floor,” he said.

Taylor said the amendment would be offered on the floor.

Hood could not identify any critical race theory classes being taught in the public schools. When asked by legislators, he said more than once, “I will get back to you.”

Tuesday was the deadline to pass the bill out of committee. Gunn did not assign the bill to the Universities and Colleges Committee until late last week. Most other bills were assigned by the speaker much earlier in the process.

Most familiar with the legislative process assumed Gunn would assign the bill to the Education Committee.

Have questions about critical race theory? Join the conversation this Thursday:

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.