SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The House Education Committee voted Wednesday to advance HB1012, a bill aimed at ‘protecting students and employees from Critical Race Theory’ in institutions of education in South Dakota.

Critical Race Theory has been a divisive topic across the United States over the last year, including in South Dakota. In 2021, Governor Kristi Noem issued an executive order banning the South Dakota Department of Education from applying for federal grants in history and civics over concerns of CRT.

“Critical race theory has no place in South Dakota schools. These ideas are un-American. We are ‘one nation, under God, indivisible,’ yet critical race theory seeks to divide us based on inaccurate revisions to our nation’s history,” Gov. Kristi Noem said in a news release following the executive order.

One month after the order was issued, the South Dakota Board of Regents (BOR) introduced a directive for public universities in South Dakota called “Opportunity for All.” The mandate would require colleges and universities to adhere to four tenets regarding diversity and opportunity on college campuses. In January, Gov. Noem celebrated the implementation of the directive on Twitter saying that the diversity offices eliminated from college campuses were “focusing on leftist agendas.”

Nathan Lukkes spoke on behalf of the BOR on Wednesday in support of HB1012. Lukkes said the bill introduced by the governor was consistent with the actions of the BOR.

What is Critical Race Theory?

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an academic theory coined in 1989 by civil rights scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw. The American Bar Association defines CRT as “a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship.” Prior to the introduction of CRT, Critical Legal Studies was the dominant theory used in the 1970s and 1980s to examine whether laws had inherent social biases, according to the Cornell Law School.

CRT is composed of several key tenants by which scholars analyze laws and policies to determine whether there is a racist outcome to a policy or law, intentional or not.

Timothy Schorn, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of South Dakota, says it is easier to define what CRT is not.

“It is not something that targets people and tells them that they are racist. It is not something that tells one group of people that they are better than the other; it’s nothing like that,” Schorn told KELOLAND News.

Schorn says CRT does not pertain to individuals but rather a system as a whole, by determining whether racism is embedded in institutions of government, education or legislative policies.

The bill itself does not mention or define CRT in the text, instead stating in Section 1 that certain concepts are “inherently divisive” and “contrary to our values” that all men and women are created equal. HB1012 states that a school district should not adhere to any of the following tenants:

  • “That any race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior;
  • That individuals should be adversely treated or feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin; or
  • That individuals, by virtue of race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin.”

The tenants of CRT as defined by the American Bar Association state the following:

  • Recognition that race is not a biological, but social construct and socially significant.
  • Acknowledgement that racism is embedded in systems and institutions, such as the legal system. “This dismisses the idea that racist incidents are aberrations but instead are manifestations of structural and systemic racism.”
  • Recognizes racism as codified law and policy and rejects ideas of ‘colorblindness.’
  • Embraces lived experiences of people of color in scholarship.

Gov. Noem told Fox News this week that the proposed legislation would not allow students at any level of education to be taught that a person is better than another based on their race, sex, or culture.

Noem described CRT as a political ideology that has “no basis in reality.” In an email to KELOLAND News on Wednesday, Noem’s Communications Director Ian Fury said that while there have been past policies that “did not live up to our founding ideal,” past mistakes have been fixed.

The idea that modern American society is fundamentally racist has no basis in reality.

Ian Fury, Noem Communications Director

Schorn says this opinion of CRT, and systemic racism, not being based in reality shows “…an incredible lack of understanding of American history, American policies, and even of American reality.”

“We need to move away from the idea that we’re targeting individuals through a discussion of Critical Race Theory, and instead looking at the bigger questions as to whether or not there are policies embedded in our system that have racist outcomes,” Schorn said.

Schorn points out that there are other academic theories that are used to analyze societal issues such as feminist and Marxist theory, which uses gender and class respectively to examine societal issues. He also adds that CRT is not unique to the United States but is used on a global scale to analyze institutions and policies by academics in other countries.

CRT is not about feelings, professor says

The bill under consideration by South Dakota lawmakers focuses heavily on feelings of discomfort, guilt and responsibility of students learning about the history of America. HB1012 states in Section 2 that divisive concepts include that “An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race, color, religion, ethnicity, or national origin.”

Fury said that the bill would not allow teachers to promote the idea that students should feel discomfort and that students should not be made to feel responsible for actions committed in the past.

As an educator, Schorn says that discomfort is natural to the learning experience but adds that respect must be present in the classroom. He says he worries this could limit free speech as well as academic and intellectual freedom of the classroom.

“We want to have, though, a place in our classrooms where we can have serious conversations. And sometimes those are uncomfortable,” Schorn said. “There’s nothing I can do if somebody feels guilty; that’s their problem, not mine. But I can help us maneuver through difficult conversations in a way that we can feel respected and listened to, but at the same time, address points when they are incorrect.”

Fury says it is Noem’s intent to ensure students learn about the mistakes of America’s past, but also its triumphs.

Part of our job in higher education is to challenge students to think about something differently, in a way that they have not thought about it before. And occasionally there is going to be some discomfort in that.

Timothy Schorn, Associate Professor of Political Science at University of South Dakota

Schorn said that it is not common for classes at USD to focus on CRT, if ever. “I think there’s a misunderstanding that CRT makes a portion of every class we teach, or is the focus of a class,” Schorn said.

Schorn pointed out that he is unsure how this bill would impact teachers at any grade level. For his classes, Schorn says that he does not tell his students they should feel guilt or responsibility for societal issues, but that doesn’t mean that students won’t feel discomfort.

When asked about examples of Critical Race Theory present in South Dakota education, Fury pointed to a podcast by a USD professor in 2020 in which Critical Social Justice Theory and Implicit Bias was discussed. Fury adds that CRT did not exist to the same extent in South Dakota as it did in other states.

“Critical Race Theory is attempting to address something that has been very real, and is very real,” Schorn said. “Now, we can disagree with some of the conclusions that critical race theory might reach, but it is not to say that it is not rooted in reality.”

In addition to HB 1012, HB 1337, a bill that would “protect elementary and secondary students from political indoctrination,” also advanced out of the House Education Committee on Wednesday.

In a statement sent to KELOLAND News, the ACLU of South Dakota said that they opposed both bills and called them censorship of the classroom.

“These bills treat honest and frank discussions of race and its place in American history as a threat and attempt to censor classroom conversations,” said Candi Brings Plenty, ACLU of South Dakota Indigenous justice organizer.