Ruby Bridges—as in author Robert Coles’ The Story of Ruby Bridges, a classic about a six-year-old girl’s work to integrate a New Orleans school in 1960—has been trending on Twitter for the most obnoxious reason. A select constituency of Tennessee parents have deemed the children’s book too closely aligned with critical race theory in part of their overall objection to the “Wit & Wisdom” English language arts curriculum from the Great Minds nonprofit publisher.
Robin Steenman, head of the Williamson County chapter of the Republican group Moms for Liberty, took issue with author and activist Ruby Bridges' book Ruby Bridges Goes to School among other titles, The Tennessean reported. She told a county commission that approves the school district's budget: “I realize that this isn't usually in your lane, but I just wanted you to be aware." She voiced her disapproval of educators teaching words like "injustice," "unequal," "inequality," "protest," "marching," and "segregation," and Steenman highlighted a portion of Bridges’ book that described a "large crowd of angry white people who didn't want Black children in a white school." The white mother said it too harshly divided Black and white people, without offering any "redemption" at the end. So basically Bridges told the truth, and Steenman is angry about it.
Mind you, critical race theory is a framework for interpreting law that maintains racism's reach has had particularly harmful effects on the legal system and laws that govern our society. The “Wit & Wisdom” content in question doesn’t address the theory. But in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the reckoning in policing protesters demanded throughout the nation, Republicans have attempted to demonize all aspects of the protest movement, which includes better education on the effects of slavery and racism in public schools.
Watch at the 13-minute mark for Fox host Pete Hegseth's misguided take on critical race theory:
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a law in May allowing Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to hold funds from schools that teach specific aspects of "racism, sexism, bias, and other social issues," the education reporting site Chalkbeat Tennessee reported. About 40 protesters opposing the “Wit & Wisdom” curriculum stopped Schwinn on a summer learning bus tour stopping in Sumner County. “It’s failing in Louisiana; we don’t need it here in Tennessee,” Joanna Daniels, a Sumner County mom and board member with the Sumner County Republican Assembly, told the commissioner.
Daniels failed to cite any evidence of what she interpreted as a curriculum failure in Louisiana schools, but an Advocate article from 2019 describes parents and teachers in the Livingston Parish east of Baton Rouge taking issue with what they deemed "inappropriate messages" in the curriculum. "Many parents took to social media to express concerns about a book called Separate is Never Equal, which explores a Mexican family's school desegregation case," The Advocate writer Emma Kennedy wrote. "The parents say young children don't notice racial differences at young ages, so the material is inappropriate for them.”
Those taking issue with “Wit & Wisdom” also zeroed in on Separate is Never Equal, the children’s book by author Duncan Tonatiuh. It tells the family story of civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants. Steenman said the text, which draws attention to bigotry Mexican immigrants faced, specifically a belief that they were "not smart" and "dirty," forces second-graders who spend weeks on the book to hold certain beliefs. Social media users obviously took issue with Steenman’s claim that the aspects of American history she doesn’t approve of have a unique brainwashing effect.
"Ruby Bridges and Sylvia Mendez were, at heart, fighting for something very simple: the right not to be treated differently (and worse) because of the color of their skin," author James Surowiecki tweeted. "It's preposterous for anyone to suggest that teaching their stories is un-American.”
Surowiecki said in another tweet: “If you're against teaching kids Ruby Bridges' book - the story of a little girl braving mobs of angry protesters in order to integrate her local elementary school - you're not opposed to ‘critical race theory.’ You're opposed to America's ideals.”
Michael Li, redistricting and voting counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program, tweeted: “A children’s book about Ruby Bridges integrating a New Orleans school is labeled ‘critical race theory’ because its portrayal of an angry white crowd treats white people too harshly and doesn’t show white people being redeemed in the end. Yes, really.”
At least 35 districts in Tennessee had to apply for waivers to use "Wit & Wisdom" in K-2 grades because it didn’t include required phonics aspects, and the districts secured the waivers with the agreement they would add a phonics requirement, The Tennessean reported. The curriculum is intended to motivate students to read at higher levels, the newspaper reported. "Our teachers are reporting to us that our students are reading like they've never read before," Williamson County Schools Assistant Superintendent Dave Allen told the school board during a May work session. "I've received a flood of emails recently that said, 'Don't do anything with the curriculum. My kid's loving it.'"
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