A bill pushed by Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that would prohibit public schools and private businesses from making white people feel "discomfort" when they teach students or train employees about discrimination in the nation's past received its first approval Tuesday.
Florida's state Senate Education Committee approved the bill that takes aim at critical race theory — though it doesn't mention it explicitly — on party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.
Democrats argued the bill isn't needed, would lead to frivolous lawsuits and said it would amount to censorship in schools. They asked, without success, for real-life examples of teachers or businesses telling students or employees that they are racist because of their race.
"This bill's not for Blacks, this bill was not for any other race. This was directed to make whites not feel bad about what happened years ago," said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, who is Black. "At no point did anyone say white people should be held responsible for what happened, but what I would ask my white counterparts is, are you an enabler of what happened or are you going to say we must talk about history?"
DeSantis held a news conference last month in which he called critical race theory "crap," and said he would seek legislation that would allow parents to sue schools and employees to sue employers if they were subject to its teachings.
Critical race theory is a way of thinking about America's history through the lens of racism. It was developed during the 1970s and 1980s in response to what scholars viewed as a lack of racial progress following the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation's institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.
Conservatives reject it, saying it is a world view derived from Marxism that divides society by defining people as oppressors and oppressed based on their race. They call it an attempt to rewrite American history and make white people believe they are inherently racist.
The bill reads in part, "An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex. An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race."
The bill is called "Individual Freedom." Republican Sen. Manny Diaz, its sponsor, said it is not about ignoring the "dark" parts of American history, but rather ensuring that people are not blamed for sins of the past.
"No individual is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, solely by the virtue of his or her race or sex," Diaz said. "No race is inherently superior to another race."
Jones said DeSantis is playing to his conservative base by pushing the legislation, but wouldn't go so far as to say DeSantis himself is racist.
"The governor will continue to go across the country with his racist rhetoric on critical race theory ... It's a problem that doesn't exist," Jones said. "I think the governor's policies that he continues to push are racist."
Asked for comment, the governor's spokeswoman reiterated comments DeSantis made at a news conference last month in which he referred to the late civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.
DeSantis said at the time, "You think about what MLK stood for, 'He said he didn't want people judged on the color of their skin but on the content of their character. You listen to some of these people nowadays, they don't talk about that.' "
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.