Mississippi lawmakers spent more than seven hours in early 2022 debating a bill that they said would ban the teaching of critical race theory. They passed it after brushing off the emotional objections of every Black lawmaker and the fact that no state K-12 classroom taught the academic theory.
On the campaign trail and during recent speaking events, several Republican officials have since boasted their hard work and focus on the issue.
But the recently updated Mississippi Code, which consists of bills passed into law during the 2022 legislative session, does not include the term “critical race theory” — or even language banning its teaching, experts say. The updated legal code recently was delivered to the state Capitol and is being distributed throughout the state.
The new law’s language reads no university, community college or public school “shall direct or otherwise compel students to personally affirm” that “any sex, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin is inherently superior or inferior or that individuals should be adversely treated on the basis of their sex, ethnicity, religion or national origin.”
Gov. Tate Reeves, Speaker Philip Gunn and others have touted that Senate Bill 2113, passed during the 2022 session, prohibits the teaching of critical race theory. The bill created a new section of law at 37-13-2 in the legal code. A general index for the legal code does say, “Critical race theory, prohibition,” and then cites the code section. But the code section itself does not use the term “critical race theory.”
“This law does not prohibit critical race theory, and courts generally are not looking to the index to interpret a statute,” said Yvette Theresa Butler, a professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law and the only person in the state who focuses an entire class on critical race theory.
At the Neshoba County Fair earlier this year, Reeves proclaimed to the generally conservative crowd, “Here in Mississippi we are leading the way and we are driving the conservative movement. We have banned critical race theory, and we have banned vaccine mandates.”
In response to questions about critical race theory not being in the code, Cory Custer, the governor’s deputy chief of staff sent a statement: “Mississippi Today has consistently missed the point on this issue. You’ve been so focused on the label ‘critical race theory,’ that you’ve totally failed to understand that the legislation prohibits teaching the core tenets of this radical indoctrination. It’s almost like you have blinders on. Passing legislation that simply states critical race theory is banned isn’t enough.
“This legislation goes beyond labels and targets the discriminatory teaching that is the foundation of critical race theory – that students are inherently superior or inferior because of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.”
But Butler said the language of the controversial law “actually prohibits the exact opposite of what CRT explores. CRT is just another theoretical method that is used to explore the law’s role in perpetuating and remedying inequality.”
“CRT explores the ways the law has been and is still used (even if written in a neutral – non-discriminatory – manner) to perpetuate racial inequality,” Butler said. “Consequently, it is factually inaccurate to say that anyone teaching CRT directs or compels students to adopt a belief that any race (sex, religion, etc.) is inherently superior or inferior.”
Critical race theory has generally been taught as a graduate level class on the university level and is designed to explore the impact of race on various aspects of society. When the bill was being debated earlier this year, state Department of Education officials said no public kindergarten through 12th grade school in the state was offering critical race theory classes.
A critical race theory class will again be offered at the Ole Miss Law School in the 2023 spring semester, Butler said.
Every African American member of the Legislature opposed passage of the bill during the 2022 session. In the Senate, all 14 African Americans walked out before the final vote in an unprecedented move.
While many Black legislators argued that the language of the bill is meaningless, they still voted against it saying they feared that it could make some educators afraid to teach the true history of the state.
Democratic state Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez, the House minority leader and longtime attorney, agrees with Butler’s interpretation of the law. The law threatens to cut off funding to any school that violates its conditions, though Johnson said there is no enforcement mechanism in the proposal.
“This law does not prohibit the teaching of critical race theory,” Johnson said. “It does not prevent teachers who are brave and want to challenge their students from doing so.”
The bill lawmakers passed earlier this year did not include the term “critical race theory” in its text. The only mention was at the bottom of the final page of the bill where in nondescript type it reads “ST: Critical Race Theory: prohibit.” The Mississippi Legislature’s website also displays what is known as the short title of the bill “Critical Race Theory, prohibit” if the bill is called up.
Various right wing groups and politicians have argued that critical race theory attempts to create racial strife and attempts to place undue burdens on young white children. Butler said that is not the case.
“Unfortunately, I’ve had many students in my Civil Rights class at the law school who are behind,” Butler said. “They received very limited formal education (as did I) about the antebellum era, the causes of the civil war and secession, the reconstruction era, and the civil rights movement. A civil rights class in law school is meant to discuss civil rights statutes and case law and how to use them to address legal injustices.
“While some civil rights history is covered in law school, it is not a substitute for a history class. I am concerned about what the last two years of messaging will do to students’ understanding of, not only history, but the valiant struggle by advocates of many races, sexes, genders, and religions to strengthen our conceptions of democracy, liberty, and equal protection.”