Critical race theory battle brewing in Louisiana Legislature; divisive debate on horizon

Greg Hilburn
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Demonstrators in Scottsdale, Ariz., protest against teaching critical race theory May 24, 2021.

A battle is already brewing in the Louisiana Legislature about whether critical race theory should be banned in schools, a contentious debate that is playing out in state legislatures across the country.

Critical race theory examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism in America. 

This week Denham Springs Republican Rep. Valarie Hodges became the first to pre-file a bill before the March 15 Regular Session begins that would require schools to teach "race-neutral history."

"CRT relentlessly focuses on the negative aspects of America's founding and ignores anything good about our history," Hodges said in an interview with USA Today Network. "It's irrational and delusional. The left liberals are pushing this crazy ideology that American is bad."

More:Critical race theory controversy hangs over new Louisiana social studies standards

Hodges' House Bill 27 would require the teaching of The Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Gettysburg Address and other key historical American documents and tenets like "Creator-endowed unalienable rights of the people."

"It is critical to teach students the entire, contextual and documented experience of the United States and to use curricula and instructional materials that teach apolitical, fact-based and race-neutral history," the bill's text reads.

Louisiana's Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Vincent Pierre, a Lafayette Democrat, said Hodges' bill and others like it are an attempt to whitewash American history.

"We're going to stand together as a caucus to keep that type of legislation from coming out of committee, and if it comes out of committee we'll stand together on the floor to try to defeat it," Pierre said.

Signs are passed around inside the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda displaying opposition to bills lawmakers said would eradicate "critical race theory" from state schools. Jan. 12, 2022

"Slavery and racism is a thread that weaves its way throughout American history; how can you ignore its impact," Pierre said. "It's unfortunate, but it's part of our history and if we don't teach it we're doomed to repeat it."

Hodges said her bill won't create historical gaps in history instruction and argues that CRT creates division rather than unity.

"I want to teach all of it; we should teach the evils of history," she said. "Is America perfect? No. But we should be teaching the principles on which we aspire to as a country instead of focusing only on the negatives."

Hodges said she has read or seen reports of third graders having to apologize in class "because of their skin color" as part of CRT teaching, though she conceded she hasn't witnessed any credible reports of that in Louisiana.

"We want to make sure it's not taught here in the future," she said.

CRT has become a flashpoint of what's known as the "culture wars" across the country.

Mississippi's Black senators walked off the Senate floor in protest last week before a vote on a bill designed to prohibit the teaching of CRT in the state's public schools.

The bill still passed the Senate 32-2, with the only two white Democratic senators voting against it. Debate on the bill lasted more than an hour, with Black lawmakers repeatedly asking Republicans why the state needed such a bill.

Louisiana's Republican Party has held anti-CRT workshops in Baton Rouge, Covington and Lafayette to "help eliminate this Marxist philosophy from our classrooms."

The CRT debate isn't new to the Louisiana Legislature.

More:Louisiana House Education Committee chair out following fallout from slavery comment

Last year Chalmette Republican state Rep. Ray Garofalo was ousted as chairman of the House Education Committee after his comments about "the good, the bad, the ugly" of slavery when debating his anti-CRT bill went viral.

GOP House Speaker Clay Schexnayder of Gonzales was sharply criticized by the Louisiana Republican Party after he removed Garofalo when the Black Caucus said it would balk on tax reform if Garofalo remained in place.

Garofalo indicated there may have been "good" components about slavery before quickly walking his comments back.

It's a debate that promises to be repeated this spring in the Louisiana Capitol.

Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1