The Columbus library system began to hold monthly events in 2021 where community leaders discussed books, articles and films on race, racism and social justice.
“It’s a good way for the community to get some insight into issues,” said Anthony Wilson, the library’s diversity, equity and inclusion manager. And the feedback is overwhelmingly positive.
“I’ve read it many times and see a lot of challenges for library systems,” Wilson said. “It could have an impact on the equipment we carry and the programs we run.”
Not just an education bill
Ohioans who support and oppose HB 327 have primarily testified to its impacts on K-12 education.
They say the rules for discussing divisive concepts such as racism and slavery would either protect the “accurate” and “unbiased” teachings of American history or “whitewash” those narratives with its vague definitions and harsh penalties. . Teachers who break the law could lose their license.
Penalties for other public employees are less clear, but HB 327 states that no state agency or political subdivision shall provide certain types of training or instruction to their employees, contractors, or outside groups.
This list of divisive concepts includes:
- That people cannot succeed or achieve equality because of their race, ethnicity, color, gender, religion, or national origin.
- That people of any race, ethnicity, color, gender, religion or national origin are inherently superior or inferior.
- Whether people are treated unfavorably or favorably because of their race, ethnic origin, color, sex, religion or national origin.
- That people from certain groups can be inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, consciously or unconsciously.
And no one “will be required to complete a program that includes divisive concepts as a condition or prerequisite for employment.”
“We are all very concerned about what this might mean,” said Alliance of Ohio Mayors Director Keary McCarthy. “Language Ambiguity and Potential Impacts on a Wide Variety of Government Functions.”
A matter of local control
For example, Dayton Mayor Jeff Mims, a Democrat, said his city is working to implement 142 recommendations to improve interactions between the community and its police force.
The list includes everything from de-escalation to approaching people with different disabilities and the unconscious biases officers may have.
HB 327 could impede those reforms, he said, because of its restrictions on discussing unconscious bias.
“If we were to exclude books and data that validate these things, it would be impossible to educate our community and justify the changes that need to be made,” Mims said.
Lalitha Pamidigantam, policy analyst for YWCA Columbus, said public entities may stop taking diversity training courses offered by YWCA.
“We wouldn’t want to change anything about our hardware, but those who contract with us could cancel their contracts if they were a political subdivision or audit our classes,” she said.
Cities, counties, townships and libraries should all submit annual reports to the Department of Administrative Services on their compliance.
“It goes against local control,” Franklin County Commissioner Erica Crawley said. “We should leave it up to local governments to do what’s best for them. If they don’t want to deal with equity or fight discrimination, they don’t have to. But for us, it’s is one of our pillars, and it has been successful.”
The bill’s sponsors, Republican Representatives Diane Grendell and Sarah Fowler Arthur, did not respond to requests for comment through a spokesperson.
But when HB 327 was introduced, Fowler Arthur told the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau that they “became aware during the research process that some state agencies required their employees to undergo training and agree with certain ideological points of view”.
This was a problem for Republican Ashtablula because she doesn’t think public jobs should require people to hold certain beliefs.
“I think it’s really important to realize that our differences can be our greatest strength,” Fowler Arthur said. But some formations that call themselves DEI “actually focus on ideological concepts that tear us apart”.
The Cuyahoga County Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services Board went back and forth whether racism or discrimination should qualify as a public health crisis.
The council ultimately landed on racism, but Pamidigantam thought that was indicative of the “negative attention” diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are receiving in the state.
“The chilling effect of this bill would be even worse,” she said. If educators and employers don’t know where the line is, they can steer clear of legitimate programs to be safe.
“I don’t really know if I can define what a divisive concept is because diversity is the United States of America,” Wilson said.
And public libraries are at the heart of this narrative.
“We are neutral public entities where different voices and different opinions can be shared,” Wilson said. “We don’t endorse the materials in our collection, but we want to make sure we offer the different books. We give people the option to choose.”
Anna Staver is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news outlets in Ohio.