By Pam Sohn
Cue up Tennessee Republicans to stomp their feet and bigfoot school, parental and individual rights or decisions — again.
This time, under a bill introduced by our own Republican state Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga and House Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville, Tennessee public schools and universities would not be allowed to require employees to take “implicit bias” training.
“Implicit bias” is another GOP buzz phrase that politicians are increasingly using to amp up their base. But what is it really?
Ten or 20 years ago, we called it “sensitivity training.” A generation or two before that we called it standard Sunday School fare: “Red and yellow, black and white; they are precious in His sight.” Just about every religion’s Golden Rule book teaches some version of it, better known as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
But somehow, in today’s perverse, politically conservative rule book, exploring and understanding our differences and sameness have become an ill-titled concept meant to stoke more fervor, more grievance, more whip-up-the-campaign votes (and money). And especailly when it’s shorthand for some kind of “ban” with a hyperbolic name like “implicit bias.”
The gambit, steamed on steroids during the radical and aggrieved Trumpian years, has worked. And what a waste.
Such training, under all of those aforementioned names, was designed to remind us that we’re all God’s and Earth’s children. Yet, depending on our upbringing, life circumstances and environmental influences, we all have different customs, beliefs and understandings that may have fostered subconscious prejudices and stereotypes. Our prejudices, conscious or unconscious, may affect how we see and treat people of other races, ethnicities or socioeconomic backgrounds.
This is not rocket science. It’s human nature.
And centuries ago, we knew this when our diverse moral leaders wrote their versions of the all-universal “Do unto others” golden rule.
Not anymore. Now we’re goaded to get our backs up and say, “I’m not biased. I don’t need this training, and you can’t make me!” Which, in itself, should be a red flag that we do need it — albeit most certainly with a far less red-meat-like name.
There is plenty of research in education that shows these very unconscious biases may contribute to racial disparities and differences in student achievement, learning opportunities and school discipline between Black and white students.
› Students of color make up 40% of Tennessee’s public school population, but teachers of color number only 13%.
› A 2020 Vanderbilt study found larger disparities in test achievement and suspensions between Black and white youth in counties where teachers hold stronger pro-white/anti Black biases.
› A more recent study by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance shows that Black and male teachers in Tennessee consistently receive lower classroom observation scores — even when they have similar teaching qualifications and similar student achievement growth scores as those of their white and female peers.
All coincidence? Hardly.
But it’s less clear whether training about implicit bias actually changes behaviors, and many conservatives contend the training just causes more divisiveness.
Certainly, conservative groups right here in Hamilton County have worked to make it divisive.
Hamilton Flourishing put up a ruckus to stop “equity” training here in Hamilton County in 2019. The school system-sponsored session for local teachers prompted the group’s exercise in political flame throwing over slides discussing, among other things, “white privilege.” One Hamilton Flourishing official charged, “The liberal left is running the school system and pushing their agenda onto our children with our tax dollars.”
Let’s be clear: White privilege doesn’t mean white people’s lives aren’t hard. It means the color of their skin is not what makes their lives hard. These misunderstandings, to us, scream we need more — not less — sensitivity training and conversation in schools, faculty rooms and board of education meetings.
But we can’t have that conversation — per the Tennessee General Assembly.
Two years ago, Tennessee became one of the nation’s first state’s to enact a law limiting how race and gender can be discussed in schools, including conversations about systemic racism. Waving the battle flag of “critical race theory” (really a college course, not these public school history and civics discussions), our lawmakers seemed convinced they know more than teachers.
This also is the same GOP-controlled Tennessee General Assembly that last year passed another law that could lead to a statewide ban of certain school library books, some of which deal with matters of race and gender. These lawmakers believe they also know more than librarians and parents.
And it’s the same set of self-involved lawmakers who are planning to ban gender-affirming medical care. Our lawmakers know more than parents and doctors.
And we mustn’t forget. These same know-it-all lawmakers fashioned Tennessee’s abortion ban, which bans all abortions and subjects physicians to felony charges for performing the procedure unless they can prove it was performed to save the life of the mother. These Republicans know more than women and their doctors.
The next time these Republicans claim Democrats like “big government,” ask them to explain Tennessee’s “bigfoot government.”