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Utah Democrats walk out to protest limits on teaching race

May 19, 2021 GMT
Monica Wilbur expresses her opposition to critical race theory at the State Capital in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.  (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)
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Monica Wilbur expresses her opposition to critical race theory at the State Capital in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)
1 of 6
Monica Wilbur expresses her opposition to critical race theory at the State Capital in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah Democrats walked off the House floor Wednesday in protest of a resolution recommending that the state review any curriculum that examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture and the law.

Republican lawmakers say they want to ensure that children aren’t being taught that one race is inherently superior or inferior to another as part of critical race theory, which highlights how historical inequities and racism continue to shape public policy and social conditions.

Critical race theory is not a part of curriculum in K-12 schools, and the state school board has said no board member has suggested including it.

Lawmakers initially intended to consider an outright ban on critical race theory during the special legislative session. But Republican Gov. Spencer Cox declined to place the bill on the agenda and recommended delaying it until the next general session.

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Cox said Monday the possible ban and a proposal to declare Utah a Second Amendment sanctuary needed “more time, thought, dialogue and input” before being voted on.

In response, the House and Senate announced they would still bring both issues to the floor as separate resolutions over Cox’s objections.

As Republican sponsor Rep. Steve Christiansen began his presentation by saying “Colleagues, we live in a fantastic nation,” 17 House Democrats calmly stood up from their seats and filed out the door. They then stood on the marble steps of the Capitol rotunda to explain that they had left because they were shut out of the process behind both resolutions.

Rep. Brian King, the Democratic minority leader, said walking out of the debate was their only option to speak out and “not be a part of that sham process.”

“What this is about is an attempt or first step in assuring that my history and the history of many people of color are not taught in our school system in the state of Utah,” said Rep. Sandra Hollins, the only Black member of the Legislature.

Identical resolutions on reviewing critical race theory passed in the Senate and House shortly after House Democrats walked out.

Utah is not alone in advancing proposals to try to curb ideas central to critical race theory. Arkansas, Idaho and Oklahoma have implemented various versions of a ban already this year. Other attempts have been floated in New Hampshire, Missouri and Louisiana over the past few months, though those measures are unlikely to pass.

On the Senate floor, Republican Sen. Lincoln Fillmore said he hopes the resolution will lower the temperature on the issue that has become a national lightning rod. Fillmore, who sponsored the bill, acknowledged that he did not know the definition of critical race theory but said he hopes the resolution will allow the state board of education to explore it.

Democratic senators criticized Republicans for fast-tracking the resolution without seeking proper input from educators and academics. Sen. Derek Kitchen said that putting forth the resolution will do more harm and further inflame existing tensions.

“It feels like the Legislature is inappropriately inserting itself and in the process adding fuel to this fire,” he said.

Earlier in the day, members of the Utah Educational Equity Coalition held a protest against the resolution on the steps of the Capitol building.

Darlene McDonald, a social activist, said critical race theory has been misrepresented by the Legislature, and the resolutions could limit teaching diversity, equity and inclusion in Utah schools.

“This decision has been made without consulting actual educators who teach diversity, equity and inclusion in schools, and it also was made without consulting with actual experts and scholars on critical race theory,” she said. “How it has been defined by members of the Legislature as well as members of the Utah State school board is distorted and inaccurate.”

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Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.