Interrogating a Critical Race Theory Critic

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 7, 2021.
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As conservatives aim to capitalize on critical race theory backlash and their Virginia gubernatorial win from November, one longtime educator in Rhode Island has positioned herself at the center of the fray.

Ramona Bessinger, an English teacher of 23 years currently working in the Providence Public Schools, has been making the rounds on the conservative media circuit since this summer, ever since she first warned of CRT’s “infiltration” into the classroom.

Bessinger first appeared in July on Legal Insurrection, a blog affiliated with a Rhode Island–based conservative nonprofit. She alleged her predominantly nonwhite students had been “introduced to one of the most racially divisive, hateful, and in large part, historically inaccurate curriculums I have ever seen in my teaching career.” Bessinger outlined a shift in Providence school curriculum during the 2020–2021 school year, one overly focused on “identities” and “almost exclusively on an oppressor-oppressed narrative.”

Her arguments were immediately explosive. Among some of her most shocking statements were that “much of American history and literature was getting wiped out” and specifically that Romeo and JulietThe Crucible, essays by Martin Luther King Jr., poetry by Maya Angelou, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost, and books focused on the Holocaust like Elie Wiesel’s Night and The Diary of Anne Frank “were removed from our classroom and sent to recycling.” She also criticized professional development sessions where white educators were split up from nonwhite educators, and lamented that teachers were not allowed to question why some students did not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Bessinger’s blog was swiftly picked up by right-wing media, including Fox News and The Wall Street Journal editorial page. In October, she chatted with Tucker Carlson, who described her as “very insightful,” and last week she called on Rhode Island lawmakers to investigate how Providence Public Schools handles race and diversity lessons.

But virtually no outlet has deemed it necessary to verify any of her claims.

Debates over teaching critical race theory—an academic framework focused on the ways racism is embedded in policies and systems—have dominated school board meetings and state legislatures. Many Republican lawmakers were motivated by attacks from Donald Trump, who in September 2020 came out to blast The New York Times’ 1619 Project, calling it “a crusade against American history … ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.” Shortly before Trump left office, he issued an executive order establishing a commission focused on countering the idea that “the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.” Lawmakers soon followed by introducing bills to crack down on teaching so-called “divisive” topics like race, gender, and oppression.

Some parents are using attacks on critical race theory as a vehicle to push back against the Black Lives Matter movement. Other parents say they believe the various equity initiatives being implemented in the name of anti-racism are going too far, in ways they feel either threaten academic rigor or undermine the sense of patriotism they hope their child feels. But do the claims of critical race theory critics also go too far in depicting a toxic environment in public schools?

On one level, Bessinger is right in identifying some changes that have taken place within her district. In 2020, Providence Public Schools installed its first chief equity and diversity officer, a woman named Dr. Barbara Mullen. It was also the first year leaders rolled out a new curriculum program for elementary and middle-school students. The district selected American Reading Company, or ARC, in part for its Spanish curriculum and its emphasis on “culturally-responsive” texts, featuring diverse characters and written by diverse authors.

But Bessinger’s claims about esteemed literary classics being discarded or barred hold much less water. After she insisted the “oppressor-oppressed” narrative is the only one students are now exposed to, and gone was “diversity, perspective, truth and rigor that previously were taught,” I asked Bessinger to see a list of books that were approved for instruction. “There is no list,” she said, adding that there are “hundreds and hundreds” of books so she couldn’t possibly run through them all with me.

I don’t need to run through them together, I explained, I just want to review some of the titles. Bessinger then emphasized that we shouldn’t get too hung up on books. “Critical race theory is an ideology that’s infiltrated every aspect, every grade, every assignment, every part of school culture,” she stressed. “It’s very insidious and I hope I’m doing a good job at explaining this because if we don’t get this out we will not recognize this country in a few years.”

But if there is no list, I asked, where do you find the “hundreds and hundreds” of titles and what does it mean then for a book to be “removed” from a class? She wouldn’t, or couldn’t, say.

Fortunately, children and parents in Providence need not worry that lessons on the Holocaust, Shakespeare, or Martin Luther King Jr. are being scrapped from the public-school canon.

Shannon McLoud, who has worked for the district for the last eight years, two teaching English in middle school and the last six as an English department leader in high school, says that many of the texts and authors Bessinger claims are gone remain part of the high school curriculum, and some of those McLoud believes are better suited for older students anyway. “I’ll be honest, I’ve taught Night to eighth graders and it was probably not the best novel for that age cohort,” she said.

At the high school level, Providence schools use a curriculum program called StudySync, produced by McGraw-Hill. Core texts for this year, which were voted and approved collectively by high school English teachers across the district, include John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Sharon Draper’s Romiette and Julio for ninth grade, Elie Wiesel’s Night and Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents for tenth grade, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for 11th grade, and George Orwell’s 1984 and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner for 12th. (Supplemental high school texts also still include Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and Elie Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference.”)

“I feel the district is trying to put in more voices of color, but I don’t see how that’s a bad thing,” said McLoud. “So I think pedagogically she and I just disagree.”

Kira Leander, an English language arts teacher at the middle-school level in Providence, said it’s important to remember this is only the second year of using ARC in the district, and its first year was rolled out during the pandemic, amid a tumultuous state takeover of Providence’s schools. “I think what a new curriculum rollout looks like varies from school to school, and classroom to classroom, and there’s not just one story here,” she told the Prospect.

Still, Leander said, teachers lacked full discretion to choose their classroom literary texts, even before ARC. “I almost feel like what [Bessinger is] insinuating is that in the past teachers could just choose whatever they wanted and read that, but there’s always been curriculum programs and they come with attached texts, and ARC is no different in that way.” Teachers can still bring in some of their own supplemental texts, Leander added, though it can be challenging to find time in the busy school year to teach them.

That’s not to say ARC was met by all teachers with open arms. After the first year of the rollout, leaders from the English and social studies departments met to discuss which books students didn’t seem to connect with, and which ones educators didn’t love teaching. In some cases, core texts were swapped out based on feedback.

Leander says there is also truth to the observation that a lot of the ARC novels, like Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton, have some element of a young person facing oppression or discrimination based on an identity marker like race. “But to claim it’s an ‘oppressor-oppressed’ narrative oversimplifies the story and erases what I hope our students are really getting out of it,” she said. “Which is a sense of empowerment and exploring how young people can use their own voices to create the type of change that they want to see in the world. These books are used to engage with the question of what we do when we either see or ourselves face inequities.”

A spokesperson for ARC declined to comment on Bessinger’s critiques but said via email that “units are intentionally designed to give educators and schools the flexibility to include any relevant texts they believe will best meet the needs of their students.”

IN ADDITION TO CURRICULAR OBJECTIONS, Bessinger has also raised alarms about new “racialized” and “divisive” professional development opportunities. One in particular was the establishment of so-called affinity groups, where white and nonwhite educators could gather separately and talk about their experiences.

Barbara Mullen, the chief equity and diversity officer, encouraged the affinity groups and said she received pushback from just “two to three educators who were confused” because they thought it was based on segregation. “The reality is people need different things, so we create spaces for students to have the things they need and it’s the same for our educators,” she told the Prospect. Mullen is no longer working with Providence schools, and now serves as an administrator for Cambridge, Massachusetts, public schools. Providence Public Schools has not yet installed another chief equity and diversity officer and did not return requests for comment.

According to Leander, more than a few teachers felt uncomfortable with the affinity groups when they were introduced. “We need a lot of education about why we need affinity spaces, and as a district we’re struggling so much as it is with systems and structures and overall functionality, like even figuring out who is in charge of what, which makes taking on these conversations around power and oppression and identity more challenging, though necessary.”

“I’ll be honest, when I first heard the idea I thought it seemed weird,” said McLoud. “But Barbara Mullen had open Zoom meetings and the reason for the groups was so people of color could feel they could speak freely, and so white people could speak freely. I see where people get weirded out by it, but I understand the reasoning now.”

In a statement provided to WLNE, an ABC-affiliated station that serves Providence, Victor Morente, a school district spokesperson noted that affinity group “participation is optional for staff.”

Last spring, the Rhode Island legislature proposed a bill to ban the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts” like critical race theory, but it was tabled for further study. More than 25 other states have introduced similar bills, nine of which have so far passed into law. (Arizona, one of the nine states, had its law overturned in November by its state Supreme Court, though lawmakers will likely reintroduce the bill and pass it again.)

For now, Bessinger is continuing to speak out, casting herself as a martyr for her country. On a near daily basis, she levels public criticisms against her school district or teachers union. (Providence Teachers Union president Maribeth Calabro did not return requests for comment.)

“I have everything to lose, my career is in jeopardy, but my core as a mother will not allow me to remain silent,” Bessinger insisted. “I have to expose this problematic curriculum that’s all over the country, and I’d probably extend that to the world.”

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