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The Rev. Zac Morton, pastor of Morgantown's First Presbyterian Church, speaks Monday against West Virginia bills concerning the teaching of race, sex and non-discrimination.

A coalition born from a Sunday School class is opposing bills that target what’s labeled, or mislabeled, the “critical race theory” controversy in West Virginia public school classrooms.

It’s a controversy several coalition partners said is manufactured, arguing that the bills could have a chilling effect on honest discussions about race, sex and U.S. history.

Critical race theory, or CRT, isn’t listed in West Virginia’s mandated statewide K-12 public education learning standards, but local curricula may add onto those standards, and conservatives have so broadly defined the term that its meaning is vague. Generally speaking, critical race theory is a way of analyzing society and history and the role of racism within it.

There have been almost no West Virginia news stories about the national controversy — there was a kerfuffle in Jefferson County about a math program clearly marketed to Black students but open to all, according to news media there.

John Bolt, one of the teachers of the adult Sunday School class at Morgantown’s First Presbyterian Church, said “the idea that the Sunday School class has is our faith leads us to do something, that we can’t just talk about it, we have to do something.”

Bolt, a retired spokesman for West Virginia University, said a nonsectarian group called Dismantling Racism Together emerged from the class and began meeting in fall 2020.

Conservatives’ backlash to what some of them dub CRT was already brewing. While state legislative leaders didn’t push bills on the topic in the 2021 session, Bolt said, “as we moved into December of 2021, we were confident that this idea was going to show its head again.”

Last week, it showed its head and shoulders.

Ten Republican delegate sponsors introduced House Bill 4011 early in the week, and the House Education Committee began discussing it and finished passing it Thursday afternoon on an 18-5 party-line vote.

After about an hour and a half of questions, mostly from the five Democrats, Republican committee members voted to cut off debate on the bill without further discussion or any chance for amendments, just as a teachers’ union leader was about to speak.

Related bills have been filed this year but haven’t been taken up by a legislative committee. Those include two lead-sponsored by Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, one of which would create a tip line in the Governor’s Office for parents and students to report CRT in public schools. Private schools wouldn’t be included.

Now, what has become the West Virginia Coalition for Truth in History is partnering with the West Virginia NAACP, the West Virginia National Organization for Women and other groups to oppose such bills. The groups held an online news conference Monday.

The Rev. Zac Morton, minister of First Presbyterian Church, said God commanded remembering history and Christ himself was “a marginalized person under the thumb of an imperial rule that sought to oppress and manipulate people for the purpose of wealth and resource extraction.”

“It seems like the Bible would argue, and lays out a dramatic case, that it’s not just important but it’s absolutely vital to study and look at our history honestly, especially parts we’d rather gloss over,” said Morton, who is white.

There will be a public hearing on HB 4011 from 9-10 a.m. Wednesday in the House of Delegates chamber.

If the bill passes the full House, it will go to the Senate, where former state NAACP president Owens Brown is now a Democrat senator. As they are in the House of Delegates, Democrats are a superminority in the Senate.

“They say a fish rots from the head down,” Brown said. “And there is a real stench permeating Republican politics in West Virginia and across America.”

Brown said, “some of the Republicans are perpetrating this lie about critical race theory” for political gain and at children’s expense.

“To me, when you lie for political gain, and turn people against each other and create mistrust amongst people, that’s what I would call evil,” he said. He said the tip-line bill is “right out of the Soviet Union” and that “this cultural war they’re engaging in is going to lead to some type of violence.”

HB 4011, the “Anti-Stereotyping Act,” does not mention CRT, but it would require public and charter schools, not private schools, to post online all materials “concerning or used for school personnel training on all matters of nondiscrimination, diversity, equity, inclusion, race, ethnicity, sex, or bias, or any combination of these concepts with other concepts.”

The same online posting would be required for all school curricula, such as textbooks and worksheets, concerning the same issues.

The posting of this curricula would additionally have to be accompanied by the instructional materials’ author, organization, links to it if it’s publicly available online, how to review it otherwise and the teacher’s identity, if the teacher created it.

Audra Slocum, a white WVU associate professor who trains middle- and high-school English and social studies teachers, said, “I see the intent of these bills as an obvious attempt to instill fear in teachers who are committed to teaching accurate history and contemporary social issues” while posing as transparency and anti-stereotyping bills.

The bill also says public and charter schools and their employees can’t, in the scope of their employment, “promote, embrace, or endorse stereotypes based on race, sex, ethnicity, religion, or national origin.” It defines stereotypes as “character traits ascribed to a particular race, sex, ethnicity, religion, or national origin, or to an individual because” of these things.

The legislation still would allow “data or scientific studies that categorize people based on” these identifiers, “or that reveal disparities between different groups within any of those categories.”

Another section of the bill says public and charter schools cannot require or compel students or employees to affirm that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, sex, ethnicity, religion, or national origin should be blamed for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, sex, ethnicity, religion, or national origin.”

Lead-sponsor Delegate Chris Pritt, R-Kanawha, said he couldn’t name specific local or national examples Thursday of what the bill is trying to address. He said the next day on the conservative ”Tom Roten Morning Show” that it was to address critical race theory.

“There’s different definitions of it, but the gist of one definition is the idea that a person’s identity, value and prospects are predetermined by the color of their skin,” said Pritt, who is white. He alleged that schools across the country are teaching “that you’re inherently an oppressor if you’re a member of one group and you’re inherently oppressed if you’re a member of a different group. Those are not concepts and ideas that we should be teaching in our schools.”

The “different definitions” of CRT saps meaning from the term, allowing it to be used to label and criticize various ideas. Ibram X. Kendi, a Boston University professor often criticized as being a proponent of critical race theory, wrote a whole chapter opposing anti-white racism in “How to Be an Antiracist.”

“Whenever someone classifies people of European descent as biologically, culturally, or behaviorally inferior, whenever someone says there is something wrong with white people as a group, someone is articulating a racist idea,” wrote Kendi, who is Black.

“Of course, ordinary white people benefit from racist policies,” he wrote, “though not nearly as much as racist power and not nearly as much as they could from an equitable society, one where the average white voter could have as much power as superrich white men to decide elections and shape policy.”

Pritt said Monday that “what this bill attempts to address is a lot of the division that, whether you want to call it CRT or some other related concepts, those are the real things that are dividing us and, if you look at the plain language of our bill, there’s nothing that should be controversial.”

Morton, the pastor, said he understands scripture as demanding “we must examine the sins of our past, collectively, right? Things like the institution of chattel slavery, the genocide of native people, exploitation of Asian immigrants who provided labor, destructive religious documents like Manifest Destiny, Jim Crow, the way that was justified by people of faith, and racial violence perpetuated against Black Americans during the Great Migration when they moved to Northern cities.”

He argued that, “once we were independent, right, many of the people of means in America became the very oppressors that they rebelled against.” He said these bills “seek to silence this necessary national conversation ... in my perspective they’re kind of anti-Gospel, they misunderstand the whole story, and it is the policy and language of the oppressor silencing the stories of the oppressed.”

Ryan Quinn covers education. He can be reached at 304-348-1254 or Follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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