After more than six hours of debate and filibuster with 17 attempted amendments and many passionate floor speeches from Black lawmakers, the Republican and white-majority state House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday entitled, “Critical Race Theory: prohibit.”
The bill was passed even though the academic theory is not being taught in Mississippi K-12 schools and proponents of the measure assured Black lawmakers it really wouldn’t do anything — other than check a Republican political box.
But the bill has ripped the Band-Aid off the issue of race in the Mississippi Capitol less than two years after the historic vote legislators made to remove the state flag with a Confederate battle emblem in its canton. For hours Thursday, Black lawmakers spoke on the floor about their or their families’ experience with racism, segregation and Jim Crow in Mississippi and urged their white Republican colleagues to vote against the bill.
“If Mississippi wants to go forward in this world’s economy and be a leader like we say we want to do, then we’ve got to stop this,” said Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson. “This is not going to bring a single business to Mississippi. It’s not going to bring a single tourist here.”
The bill passed 75-43 with three white members — two Democrats and an independent — joining all Black lawmakers in voting against it. The bill now goes to Gov. Tate Reeves, who has said preventing teaching of critical race theory is a top priority for him.
After hours of debate and questions, it still is not clear what the results of the three-page bill will be if it signed into law by the governor. While the bill’s title says it prohibits the teaching of critical race theory, that phrase is nowhere in the legislation.
When asked by Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson, whether the bill would prevent the teaching of critical race theory, Rep. Joey Hood, R-Ackerman, responded, “If this piece of legislation is affirmed by this body today, then the tenets … that where any person is considered inferior and superior would not be allowed.”
Hood, who handled the bill on the House floor, repeatedly said all the bill would do is say 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.”
Hood, under constant questioning, conceded he had not studied the origins of critical race theory.
“A lot of people have a lot of different definitions of what critical race is,” said Hood.
Critical race theory has been taught for years, primarily in university settings, as an examination of the impact of systemic racism on the nation. In recent years critical race theory has become a hot-button issue in conservative circles. Both House Speaker Philip Gunn and Reeves, possible opponents in the 2023 Republican gubernatorial primary, have spoken against critical race theory. Reeves has advocated state funds be spent on the teaching of “patriotic” history.
“This bill is only before us so that some of you can go back home and have something to campaign on,” said Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville.
But opponents said they feared that even if the language of the bill is innocuous, it will have a chilling effect on teaching history — particularly Mississippi’s dark history — and lead to censorship in the state’s classrooms.
“The language means something to me,” Summers said. “… You cannot pass a bill like this and continue the rhetoric that we can all work together.”
While Hood consistently said the bill was meant to prevent anyone from being made to feel superior or inferior, Bailey asked if his white House colleagues should be concerned that all Black members of the House voted against the proposal, just as all Black senators did earlier this session.
“In Mississippi certain things should be off limits,” said Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, whose father was the first African American elected to the Mississippi Legislature in the 20th Century. “Certain things are hitting below the belt. Certain things should not be brought up. We don’t have to dip water from this well, not in Mississippi … This bill turns my stomach. I know it turns some of y’all’s stomachs as well. We are debating an issue that does not exist in Mississippi … I think it is an insult to the citizens of the state to tell them we have to throw this issue out to you in order to galvanize you — in order to win elections.”
“History in Mississippi can be taught under this legislation,” Hood repeatedly said from the well of the chamber. But overall, Hood had few answers to the dozens of questions he was asked.
And when Black legislators offered amendments designed to try to ensure that history could be taught without any fear of a school losing state funding under the mandates of the bill, the Republican majority voted down those proposals. Other amendments — including ones to honor famous Black musicians, athletes, former President Barack Obama and others — were used more for filibuster and to prove points.
Rep. Shanda Yates, I-Jackson, told Hood that the only critical race theory class being taught in the state was at the University of Mississippi School of Law. When she asked if the class could still be taught if the bill becomes law, Hood responded, “That will be up to Ole Miss.”
Yates offered an amendment, which was voted down by Republicans, that would have added disabilities and sexual orientation to the protected class in the bill.
“If that is the true intent of this bill, that no one is discriminated against or made to feel inferior, then you should vote for this,” Yates said.
When the bill was debated in the Senate earlier this session, all Black members walked out of the chamber before the final vote. On Thursday in the House, Black members voted in unanimity against the bill.