By Wesley Walter, News editor
The Alabama State Legislature’s latest bill seeking to combat “divisive concepts” in public education has received backlash from Alabama universities including UM for its potential to restrict programming and curriculum related to diversity equity and inclusion.
HB7, written by Rep. Ed Oliver, R-Dadeville prohibits, the “promotion, endorsement, and affirmation” of seven topics including, “That solely by virtue of an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin, the individual is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.” The bill was filed in January before the Alabama House of Representatives spring 2023 session.
HB7 would also prohibit requiring students, employees or contractors, “to attend or participate in any training, orientation, or course work that advocates, acts upon, or promotes divisive concepts,” and gives local boards of education and public institutions of higher education the power to fire or discipline employees who violate the bill’s provisions.
The bill allows the listed topics to be taught at a college level provided it is done in an “objective manner and without endorsement.”
HB7 is in line with a more widescale resolution supporting the ban of DEI policies in public schools and universities and the end of mandatory diversity training which was unanimously approved by the ALGOP State Executive Committee in February 2023.
This resolution placed DEI restriction as a principal legislative goal of the ALGOP, and was sent to all AL U.S. Senators, all Republican Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the AL State Attorney General, Governor Kay Ivey and all elected AL Republican officials.
While HB7 does not mention DEI by name and Oliver claims it was “designed to prevent racism in schools and state agencies,” he has also openly stated the bill’s purpose as restricting the promotion of DEI and critical race theory in public education.
During an interview with conservative radio show “Rightside Radio,” Oliver listed the topics HB7 seeks to restrict as, “The fact that a person is born a certain color determines what his outcome in life will be and that he can’t change that, we don’t believe that’s true, the fact that slavery was anything but an aberration, the fact that a child now should be blamed for something that happened generations ago… the things that are absolutely absurd to take from 200 years ago and try to translate to modern times and try to blame someone for, which is basically what CRT does.”
Oliver also said, “Ultimately the reason that the left wants to push CRT amongst little kids is simply they want to sexualize them they want to racialize them at an early age to make them easy to manage.”
HB7 was approved in Committee 9-3 on April 12, but has yet to be voted on by the House. All 21 co-sponsors of the bill are white Republicans, and the three opposing votes were all from Black representatives.
Before the committee’s vote, Rep. Prince Chestnut, D-Selma called the bill, “a slap in the face to every decent, hard working Black Alabamian that’s in this room, that’s out of this room, and to the children and the unborn.”
Regarding HB7, UM Vice President of Advancement and External Affairs Scott Dillard said, “Anything that reduces a professor’s opportunity to have academic freedom, we’re going to oppose, and this does that. No matter how you look at it it’s just imposing restrictions upon academic freedom.”
“I do think you could probably take any of this and have reason for concern,” said Dillard claiming that any of the bill’s listed concepts could create the possibility of educators facing legal action if they say something construed as an endorsement of said concepts.
According to Dillard, despite the bill’s claim that it doesn’t seek to stop discussion of these concepts in higher education, it could still have an impact on what is discussed and taught in classes.
“I hope curriculum won’t be taught differently at all,” Dillard said. “I do think it just probably would make some professors more apprehensive about certain subjects and I can understand that and that’s again the reason we continue to oppose it.”
HB7 is only the latest bill seeking to limit DEI concepts from being applied and taught in public schools and universities and has come amongst a wave of similar legislation throughout the U.S.
HB312, also written by Oliver, passed in the Alabama House of Representatives last year but was never voted on by the Senate before the year’s session ended. HB7 is only a slight adaptation of HB312 with the bill’s listed concepts reduced from eleven to seven.
Divisive concepts bills have their roots in a 2020 Executive Order from former President Donald Trump which sought to restrict both diversity training and application of CRT in government institutions and access to grants used to promote a list of concepts similar to those of Oliver’s bills.
A study conducted by UCLA Law in 2023 identified over 500 anti-CRT measures drafted by state and local governments since 2020, 241 of which were enacted and 40% of which used the term “divisive concept.” This includes The Alabama Board of Education’s ban on teaching CRT in K-12 classes in October 2021.
During 2023, the Chronicle of Higher Education claimed that from December to March 9, state lawmakers in at least 13 states introduced at least 21 bills aiming to restrict colleges’ efforts to improve DEI.
Among the most restrictive bills are Florida’s HB999 and its companion bill SB266. SB266 originally stated that it would ban state universities from using funds to promote DEI before accreditation concerns made lawmakers rewrite the bill to ban “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.” Neither bill has been voted on by the legislature.
Florida has seen other attacks on DEI, with Governor Ron DeSantis replacing 6 of the 13 trustees of New College of Florida, a liberal arts school in Sarasota, in January 2023. In February, following these appointments, the board of trustees ousted university president Patricia Okker, replacing her with DeSantis ally, Richard Corcoran and abolished the school’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence.
During his interview with Rightside Radio, Oliver discussed potential legislative next steps saying that while he feels his bill does enough to restrict DEI in K-12 schools, “post-secondary is where I’m most concerned at this point and part two of this effort would be to look at Diversity Equity and Inclusion training which has infiltrated every school we have.”
“I know that states look at what other states are doing where there are even more restrictive legislation,” said Dillard regarding the potential for more expansive restrictions if the bill passes, saying, “I do think it’s likely as a next step.”
However, Dillard said he still has hope that time for the bill to pass through the House and Senate may run out like last year’s HB312.
“The bill is only passed through a committee and has not made it to the House floor yet either,” said Dillard, “By the end of May they’re supposed to be wrapped up, so the clock is ticking on this bill too.”