Laws best serve the public interest when the literal reading of the words of any particular piece of legislation accurately reflect the intent behind the authoring of that legislation. The literal reading of the law is sometimes referred to as the “letter” of the law. The intent of the law is sometimes referred to as the “spirit” of the law. When the “letter” and the “spirit” of the law are compatible, it becomes functionally unnecessary to distinguish the two.
But what happens when the “letter” of the law and the “spirit” of the law bear little to no resemblance to each other? This is precisely what is taking place in Oklahoma in 2022 with House Bill 1775. Inaptly referred to as Oklahoma’s “Anti CRT” law, HB 1775 includes incredibly vague language and does not directly reference what it is said to ban, Critical Race Theory. The “letter” of HB 1775 is as follows:
“No teacher, administrator or other employee of a school district, charter school or virtual charter school shall require or make part of a course the following concepts:
a. one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,
b. an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,
c. an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex,
d. members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex,
e. an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex,
f. an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,
g. any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex, or
h. meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race.”
I practically have the “letter” of HB 1775 memorized. This text is big and readable on the wall just inside my classroom door. I look at, read, and think about the “letter” of this law more than a dozen times on any given school day. I currently have no plans to violate the “letter” of HB 1775.
The “letter” of concepts a., c., e., and g. present zero obstacles to me viewing my classroom instruction through an antiracist lens. In reference to the “letter” of concept g., I have found that the feeling of guilt does not serve well the work of racial healing and reconciliation. As state board member Carlisha Williams Bradley recently pointed out, the “letter” of concept b. does not directly ban “implicit bias training.” The “letter” of concept d. contains four negatives; “no,” “cannot,” “should not,” and “without,” leaving it rather indecipherable. The “letter” of concept f. is the only direct reference to the teaching of history and does present some instructional challenges. And the most specific language is found in the “letter” of concept h.
Every day, I leave school with the confidence that I did not violate the “letter” of HB 1775. But that self-knowledge is little to no consolation. It is the mountain of assumptions and associations in the “spirit” of this law, read between the 22 lines of the “letter” of the law, that has been weaponized against Oklahoma teachers. To be clear, the “letter” of HB 1775 does very little toward banning Critical Race Theory, yet the “spirit” of the law claims a total ban on what is at its core a movement and not a concise set of concepts.
“Every day, I leave school with the confidence that I did not violate the ‘letter’ of HB 1775. But that self-knowledge is little to no consolation.”Aaron Baker
The vagueness of the “letter” of HB 1775 has given carte blanche permission for appointed government executives and state board members to invoke the “spirit” of this law any time they dislike something about an Oklahoma teacher. Last school year, the “letter” of HB 1775 was enough for a “chilling effect.” This school year, the post-racial “spirit” of this law is creating a wild west “line ‘em up and knock ‘em down” style of teacher censorship.
The “spirit” of HB 1775 is an imposition of Evangelical Christian values on public school classrooms. The “spirit” of this law is the very narrow and non-academic view of American Exceptionalism. The “spirit” of this law is a near perfect 21st century example of “I’m not racist” racism. The “spirit” of HB 1775 is the erasure of Black voices, hatred of academic freedom, and intolerance of democratic spaces in schools.
Students need to be allowed to decide for themselves if “America is the greatest country in the history of the world.” Students deserve teacher supervised space at school to navigate the intersections of race, class, and gender. Student voices should be elevated at school in ways that routinely stray from the state standards. Students demand an education that recognizes the beauty of Black lives, acknowledges disparities without blaming Black people, and creates space for honest conversations about racialized opportunity gaps.
If such beliefs about students are in violation of the “spirit” of this law, then I pray that my being and my very breath (without a single spoken word) are creative and disruptive offenses to Oklahoma House Bill 1775.