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How Oklahoma’s classroom curriculum bans affect Black educators and families

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The University of Oklahoma
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Karlos Hill, associate professor and chair of the Clara Luper Department of African and African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Karlos Hill plops the books on his desk in Norman.

One. Two. Three…

He’s counting the texts that he says contain controversial topics that could be questioned under Oklahoma’s so-called Critical Race Theory ban.

The stack grows taller as he pulls out popular books like “Just Mercy” and heavy textbooks. These are books talking about difficult topics like racism and slavery.

“They would have to cancel half my shelf, man,” he said. “Look at that. I mean, but this is canceling knowledge.”

It’s knowledge that as a scholar and parent – he’s chair of the Clara Luper Department of African and African-American Studies and father of 8-year-old twins – is important to both those duties.

And as voices like his are drowned out by louder, more radical ones advocating for book bans and attacking Critical Race Theory, Hill said he and others are trying to reframe the conversation in classrooms and at dinner tables across Oklahoma

“I’ve got to be right there trying to understand what is the teacher communicating, because if I don’t care, then my kids don’t know to care, they get misinformed,” Hill said.

So what is CRT?

Critical Race Theory (or CRT for short) is a popular discussion topic on Fox News and has permeated political talking points in Oklahoma for more than a year.

“We will teach history,” Gov. Kevin Stitt said in an interview with Fox News earlier this month. “We’re just not going to get into the race baiting stuff.”

But critics say the bill isn’t about race baiting. Instead, it’s about muting voices who would have difficult conversations around race and slavery, Hill said.

House Bill 1775 was popularly called a CRT-ban in the media. However, the phrase isn’t actually anywhere in the text of the measure. Instead, that law, signed by Stitt last year, bans conversations that make a student uncomfortable based on their race or sex.

Hill credits Critical Race Theory to Black legal scholar Derrick Bell, who died in 2011.

“He made an arguement about the enduring role that racism and racial discrimination has played in American institutional life, not just legal culture, but pervasive throughout American culture,” he said.

But that definition seems lost. Instead, Hill says the debate is being leveraged by conservative lawmakers to energize their base and win elections.

“This critical race boogeyman, this manufactured polarization, is very effective in doing that, but it’s going to have long term disastrous consequences,” he said.

There were no complaints filed with Oklahoma’s State Department of Education about CRT before the law was passed, and only two unfounded complaints were filed last fall.

The battle against classroom censorship

Hill is the father of 8-year-old twins who attend Moore Public Schools. And though sometimes it feels like a losing battle to deal with mistruth about a subject he teaches like Critical Race Theory, he and others must continue to talk about race and slavery and a multitude of other difficult topics.

There is institutional support for professors and parents like Hill.

The ACLU of Oklahoma is currently suing Oklahoma over HB 1775. And that organization’s Executive Director Tamya Cox-Toure says politicians should stay out of classroom speech debates.

“It’s unfortunate,” Cox-Toure said. “We really should honor the expertise and the work of our school administrators and educators, into determining what is necessary and what is proper to be taught in schools.”

The suit continues after it was filed in October. Since that time there have been various legal maneuvers to get some parties names removed or even have it dismissed altogether. But the case persists.

Megan Lambert is ACLU of Oklahoma’s Legal Director.

“The prohibition of using specific words in a space where the First Amendment is at its height is some of the most severe and Draconian examples of censorship we have seen in a while,” she said. “The fact that our Legislature has reached so far into the classroom that specific words are banned from the classroom is absurd. Not only from a policy perspective, but from a First Amendment perspective.”

The ACLU’s suit is far from complete. More bills like 1775 are being introduced this session. But it’s an important fight to continue, she said.

“By no means do we think we’re done, and we will continue to see these type of censorship bills evolve, and we’ll continue to try to be as present and as vocal as possible,” Cox-Toure said.

Several of the plaintiffs in the suit are at OU as students. And though Hill isn’t involved in the suit, he said he’s happy about the work they’re doing, and he’s going to keep doing similar work of his own.

That includes making sure the public, his students and even his own children have good, productive conversations about race.

“I’m certainly not going to stop teaching what I teach,” Hill said. “I’m recommitted to doing what I do more than anything.”

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Robby Korth joined StateImpact Oklahoma in October 2019, focusing on education reporting.