‘A denial of history’: Bill restricting racism and sexism discussions in diversity training passed by Iowa House

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Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

After more than four and a half hours of floor discussion on Tuesday night, the Iowa House of Representatives voted along party lines to approve a bill that imposes restrictions on diversity training offered by any state or local government agency and prohibits any instruction in public schools or universities on certain “divisive concepts” related racism and sexism.

Among the divisive concepts HF 482 lists is the idea that “the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.”

The Iowa Senate passed its version of the bill on March 3. One Democrat, Sen. Herman Quirmbach of Ames, joined Republicans in voting for the bill. Quirmbach, a retired Iowa State University professor, had earlier explained he could support the bill because it was narrowly tailored to only apply to diversity training students and staff at public schools and universities, but “does not restrict anything in the way of what goes on in the classroom, or for that matter, the research that faculty may do on related topics.”

The House bill is much more expansive, and also restricts what can be taught in public school and university classrooms. It prohibits any curriculum that teaches or promotes its divisive concepts, as well as what it refers to as “race or sex scapegoating or any other form of race or sex stereotyping.”

According to the bill’s text, race or sex scapegoating is “assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex, or claiming that, consciously or unconsciously, and by virtue of persons’ race or sex, members of any race are inherently racist or are inherently inclined to oppress others, or that members of a sex are inherently sexist, or inclined to oppress others.”

That somewhat convoluted explanation appears to mean the bill bans, or at least severely limits, instruction on implicit or unconscious bias, as well as discussions of systemic racism and sexism.

“That is canceling reality,” Rep. Mary Wolfe, a Democrat from Clinton, said during Tuesday night’s floor discussion of the bill. “That is closing our eyes and trying to pretend that if we don’t say ‘implicit bias,’ it doesn’t exist. Or if we don’t say ‘systemic racism,’ we can pretend we don’t have that.”

Wolfe’s fellow Democrat, Rep. Marti Anderson of Des Moines, pointed out how much the bill would distort the teaching of American history.

“This bill is a denial of history,” she said. “The bill doesn’t want our next generations to receive complete American history education that includes the facts of our darkest hours.”

But Rep. Steve Holt, a Republican from Dennison, said the concepts prohibited by this bill just cause “resentment and hatred against our nation.”

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Dennison. Official photo.

“I reject absolutely and with great enthusiasm the idea that we must adopt racist ideology and scapegoat races of people, marking each individual as either ‘oppressor’ or ‘oppressed,'” Holt told House members.

According to Holt, instructors could still discuss “areas and elements of our society where there is still systemic racism,” they just couldn’t suggest that America or Iowa, as a whole, has systemic racism or sexism.

Rep. Sandy Salmon of Janesville spoke for many of her fellow Republicans when she said she supported the bill because, “Iowans don’t believe that America or the state of Iowa are fundamentally racist or sexist.”

The House also amended the bill to cover mandated diversity training at all state and local government agencies, including law enforcement agencies. The policing reform bill passed unanimously by the Iowa Legislature in June following statewide protests against police violence and systemic racism included a provision requiring annual training in recognizing implicit bias. According to Holt, the bans on discussion of certain topics related to racism and sexism will have no adverse effect on such training.

“You can’t teach that everybody is X, Y, Z automatically — that the entire white race is this or that the entire United States of America is this — but you can certainly have discussions about all, I believe, of these issues,” Holt said.

Democratic Rep. Ross Wilburn, a former mayor of Iowa City who now represents Ames in the Iowa House, pushed back against the claim that HF 482 won’t inhibit training on topics like implicit bias or how educators teach students about racism and sexism. Wilburn, who has worked as a diversity educator, said the bill will limit discussions and create confusion regarding what can be taught.

“Many have acknowledged that racism, sexism, etc., does exist, and the tool to combat that is not to give it the Voldemort treatment,” Wilburn said. “It’s to be able to have focused, intentional discussions.”

Such arguments didn’t matter in the end, as all 59 House Republicans voted in favor of the bill. All 38 Democrats in the chamber voted against it. The bill now goes the Senate for its approval.

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