Kentucky Republicans ignore people’s needs, push anti-Critical Race Theory bills instead
The hands of Kentucky Senate President David Stivers sit on his gavel during the final day of the session for the Kentucky legislature in Frankfort, March 30, 2021. The Republican-dominated legislature is certain to pass anti-CRT legislation over the veto of the Democratic governor. | Timothy D. Easley / AP

FRANKFORT, Ky.—If you polled Kentucky voters on what the General Assembly should focus on, almost all of them would say aiding tornado-ravaged communities and helping protect them against the uber-contagious COVID-19 omicron variant. These emergencies demand Frankfort’s undivided attention, so few Kentuckians want more politics-as-usual, which includes passing bills just to score points for the next election.

Republicans have pre-filed two such bills, HB 14 and HB 18, both of which seek to limit an elementary or secondary school teacher’s freedom to teach about systemic racism. HB 18 would also include public colleges and universities. Under HB 14, the state could dock a school district $5,000 in funding for each day a teacher “persists” in violating the law.

“Also under HB 14, teachers can lose their certification if they are found in violation of the law, according to KRS 161.120 (I),” said Jim Johnson, who is part of a group that’s organizing a protest against HB 14 and 18 at the state capitol on Jan. 11 and 12.

The measures reflect the national right-wing obsession with Critical Race Theory, which is taught in law schools, not K-12 schools. Republicans slap the “CRT” label on almost any school program that meaningfully promotes diversity and inclusion.

“Critical race theory (CRT) has become a new boogie man for people unwilling to acknowledge our country’s racist history and how it impacts the present,” wrote Rashawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons of the Brookings Institution recently. They explained that “scholars and activists who discuss CRT are not arguing that white people living now are to blame for what people did in the past,” rather “that white people living now have a moral responsibility to do something about how racism still impacts all of our lives today.”

The American Civil Liberties Union defines CRT as “an academic concept and practice that recognizes systemic racism is deeply ingrained in American society and examines how our systems promote inequality.”

Trumpite Republicans define CRT as a dire threat to American society, meaning white society. They want voters to believe that CRT is a liberal scheme to “brainwash” white school kids.

Some of these bills, like one the GOP-majority Tennessee legislature passed last May, specifically ban CRT from schoolhouses. HB 14 and 18 don’t mention CRT. But the omission is deliberate, according to Cedric Merlin Powell, who is Wyatt, Tarrant, and Combs professor of law in the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law. (A press release from HB 14’s sponsor is replete with references to CRT and says the measure is designed to keep CRT out of classrooms.)

The sponsors of the legislation want Kentuckians “to think they’re not targeting people of color—that they just want ‘neutral history’ that doesn’t make people feel bad,” Powell said. “But everything they put in that legislation is really stereotypical.”

HB 14 and 18 “are a form of censorship—or viewpoint discrimination—by the state, which is presumptively unconstitutional,” he added.

CRT “assesses how structures, systems, and processes perpetuate inequality,” Powell explained. “It looks at how the law is implicated in advancing that inequality and how inequality is reintroduced over and over again to affect people of color.

“CRT tries to critique gaps that are in history. I think that’s why people think that it is so dangerous to talk about race and racism in American society. They want history to be very celebratory.”

GOP lawmakers figure both bills will gladden a slew of voters in a state that’s 87.5% white, Bible Belt conservative, and dotes on Donald Trump, the Yankee George Wallace, who won more than 62% of the vote here both times he ran.

So move over, God, guns, and abortion. Make room for CRT.

Johnson calls CRT “absolutely a red herring issue.” He opposes HB 14 and 18 “because I love America. I want to see our country live up to its reputation as a moral and ethical democracy.”

Opponents of HB 14 and 18 know the Republican super-majority House and Senate will likely pass both bills and easily override a veto from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who said, “Once you start legislating what can and can’t be taught in schools, especially in the framework of politics, it gets really dangerous.”

Said Johnson: “It’s going to be a monumental task to stop these bills, but well worth the effort.” (Speakers are being lined up for the protest; more information is available from Johnson via email at

All History Matters and Defenders of Accurate History, prime movers in the protest, issued a joint statement which warns that HB 14 and 18 would restrict the teaching of more than African American history—the bills would also suppress women’s, LGBTQ, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American history and the history of religious and other minorities.

The bills would, “in effect, mandate the teaching of a false version of history,” the statement says, likening the legislation to “memory laws” or “state-approved interpretations of historical events” common under authoritarian regimes.


Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Lifelong Kentuckian Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, recording secretary for the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, webmaster-editor for the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, and a member of the state AFL-CIO Executive Board. His ninth book on the history of his state, “Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy,” was published by the University Press of Kentucky in November 2020.