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Oklahoma Republican introduces bill to limit how slavery is taught in schools

State Rep. Jim Olsen's bill bans institutions from teaching that “one race is the unique oppressor” or “victim” in slavery.
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A new bill proposed in the Oklahoma state Legislature would limit how slavery is taught in schools and ban teaching that "one race is the unique oppressor" or "victim" in slavery's history.

Republican state Rep. Jim Olsen filed House Bill 2988 this month, and it has already caused a backlash from lawmakers and teachers.

The bill prohibits state agencies and public school districts from placing culpability on one race and teaching "that one race is the unique oppressor" or "another race is the unique victim in the institution of slavery.”

Further, the bills bans teaching that "America has more culpability, in general than other nations for the institute of slavery" or that the purpose for the founding of America was "the initiation and perpetuation of slavery.” 

Another stipulation of the bill is to ban teaching that America “had slavery more extensively and for a later period of time than other nations."

It also prohibits the use of the 1619 Project, a long form journalism endeavor by The New York Times that examined slavery's role in the founding of America.

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who led the 1619 project, called the bill, and others like it, “anti-history memory laws” that are “opposed to truth” on Twitter.

Public schools that fail to comply would see the state Department of Education withhold up to 5 percent of their monthly state funding under the bill. If the entity complied after a violation, funding would be restored.

Similarly, state-supported two-year and four-year higher education institutions that fail to comply could have 10 percent of state funding withheld.

If passed, the bill would take effect Nov. 1, 2022. 

Olsen defended the bill, telling NBC affiliate KFOR, “It insists upon in teaching [slavery] in balance and in context.”

“It doesn’t prohibit anybody from teaching that America had slavery, that it was evil. … It doesn’t prohibit teaching that we’re better for not having slavery," Olsen said.

The University of Oklahoma Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, however, slammed the bill as "disturbing" in a statement.

"They are cranking this legislation out faster than the courts can keep up. In the meantime, we have no intention of lying to our students or bowing to this assault on truth and academic freedom," the group said.

State Rep. Forrest Bennett, a Democrat representing Oklahoma City, called the bill “embarrassing” and a “waste of time.”

"This doesn’t help people. It does nothing to further the conversation about race, and I think it’s an important one to have,” he said to KFOR. “It also distracts from so many of the other issues that are facing Oklahoma today.”

Democratic state Rep. Monroe Nichols tweeted: "Throughout history we’ve had Holocaust deniers, 9/11 deniers, Sandy Hook deniers…don’t give Rep. Olsen too much credit for his denial & romanticizing of American slavery."

"He’s just joining an exclusive club of hate & division that none of us really want to be a part of," he added.

The bill comes as there's been a war waging among school boards and local lawmakers across the U.S. over teaching critical race theory -- the study of the relationship between race and laws and its impact on society.

This isn’t the first bill tackling the teaching of race to be proposed in Oklahoma.

In May, Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, signed House Bill 1775, which prohibited public school teachers from teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race of sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.” A coalition of civil rights groups sued the state over that law, arguing that it violates students’ and teachers’ free speech and denies people of color, LGBTQ students and girls the chance to learn their history. 

This week Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, pushed a new bill, the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act," to allow parents to sue school districts if their children are taught critical race theory.