Making ethnic studies illegal in Ohio: Even watered down, SB 83 requires teaching racism

COLUMBUS, OH — FEBRUARY 08: State Sen. Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland, during the Ohio Senate session, February 8, 2023, in the Senate Chamber at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

In 2006, I was hired by the state of Ohio to teach ethnic studies. Among the core concepts of this field that I was expected to impart to my students were the ideas that apparent human differences are more historical and cultural than natural, that what we call “race” is our own invention, and a key story of the U.S.A. is that people of color have had to struggle for the equal rights bestowed upon most white people at the time of the nation’s birth. When SB 83 passes it will be illegal for me to continue to do so. 

In the face of a historic outpouring of protest against his so-called, “Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act,” state Sen. Jerry Cirino amended his bill and softened several of its restrictions on teaching. Nevertheless, what remains still creates a set of conflicting mandates and restrictions that place those, like myself, whose job it is to teach ethnic studies, in a legal bind. First, much of the core of ethnic studies content remains classified as a “controversial belief or policy,” specifically, “diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, immigration policy.” Such controversial concepts are required under this bill to be treated differently than other subjects. 

Under even the watered down version of SB 83, when teaching about these “controversial beliefs” faculty are specifically ordered to “encourage students to reach their own conclusions about” them and are prohibited from seeking to “inculcate any social [or] political” view about them. Additionally, instructors are required to present “multiple, divergent, and varied perspectives” on these and other controversial topics. 

I’ve long believed that good teaching is based on encouraging independent and critical thinking and have read enough history to understand that what appears as commonsensical and indisputably true today may turn out to be more complicated at some future time. But within ethnic studies what SB 83 terms a controversial concept are actually settled, core elements of the field. 

Because of the way it defines “controversial beliefs,” SB 83 does not require that geography professors describe flat earth theory to keep their jobs. It does, however, require me to teach the “divergent” theory of racial construction, which is that race is a biological, fixed, natural attribute of humankind.

It requires me to teach the “divergent” theory of civil rights, which is that the constitution allows for the legal separation of races and that this is a justifiable form of equality. It requires me to teach that the South seceded because it wished to defend states rights against the unlawful aggression of the Lincoln administration, not because it wanted to protect the principle that some humans can be treated as property.

The list of what constitutes the “divergent” version of an ethnic studies concept contains many other ugly, false, and dangerous ideas drawn from discredited nineteenth century scientific racists, American Eugenicists, Klansmen, and German Nazis.  

I refuse to give credence to these crackpot racist theories, because I and my peers in the field of ethnic studies have determined through decades of careful scholarship and research that these propositions are false. These propositions do not represent reality as we have come to understand it. These are not simply “beliefs” or “views,” they are empirically grounded conclusions about our world. I suppose in the final analysis they are still beliefs but there is a wide difference between any ordinary opinion and an informed belief. 

Cirino and his once grand old party are demanding that I teach the racist ideas ethnic studies have shown to be false in the name of “intellectual diversity.” According to SB 83, If I refuse, my university is required to discipline me. So be it. 

Send your ideological police to Bowling Green State University and investigate me for not properly teaching Murray and Herrnstein’s Bell Curve, which argues that black children are less intelligent than white ones. Or for not giving credit to some version of the Great Replacement Theory promoted by many Republicans. If this is your idea of ensuring more intellectual diversity and freedom of thought in Ohio’s great universities, I want no part of it. 

Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor of ethnic studies at Bowling Green State University. The views expressed here are strictly and entirely his own. 



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Timothy Messer-Kruse
Timothy Messer-Kruse

Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor of ethnic studies at Bowling Green State University and the views expressed are entirely his own.