Ohio State Board of Education Member Defends White Supremacy

As the board fought over implicit bias training, member Diana Fessler admitted what she fears will be lost.

Activist holds Black Lives Matter flag during the MaKhia Bryant protest in front of the Ohio Statehouse. Photo: Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In July 2020, amid nationwide protests against police brutality and for racial justice, the Ohio State Board of Education passed a resolution to address racial inequality in the state’s education system. Black students statewide have, on average, significantly lower standardized test scores and graduation rates than other demographic groups, and Black male students are disproportionately disciplined, suspended, and expelled.

The resolution, introduced by board President Laura Kohler, acknowledges that “Ohio’s education system has not been immune” to racism and inequality and that “while we earnestly strive to correct them, we have a great deal of work left to do.” It calls for the state education board to offer board members implicit bias training, programs designed to help people understand their own unconscious biases and the ways stereotypes can distort their beliefs; for all state Department of Education employees and contractors to take the training; for the department to reexamine curricula for racial bias; and for school districts to examine curricula and practices for hiring, staff development, and student discipline. For some members, these simple reforms were too extreme.

The measure passed by a margin of 12-5, with one member abstaining, and quickly sparked a fight over whether its provisions constituted “critical race theory” — the name of a legitimate sociological theory that is now being used by the right to conjure a vague, amorphous, and constantly shifting threat. With four new members elected in November 2020 and three new members appointed by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, the State Board of Education in July voted 14-4 to ask Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to determine if the resolution was legal. In a September 14 opinion with an accompanying letter to the board, Yost wrote that the state could not require private contractors to take implicit bias training, criticizing the idea for imputing “collective guilt.”

In his letter, Yost included a graph from a Gallup poll showing the increase in approval rates for interracial marriages from 1959 to 2013 to illustrate “the phenomenal distance America has traveled toward the ideals of its founding.” Touting the progress of the civil rights movement, the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision, and Martin Luther King Jr., he labeled the advocates for implicit bias training in Ohio schools part of “the contra-King movement” that “sees our country’s aspirational and founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – as instruments designed to establish and maintain white supremacy and racial oppression forever” and “wants to teach our children that their character is determined by the color of their skin.”

Two weeks after Yost determined that the resolution was outside his authority, the Ohio House Government Oversight Committee held a hearing in which one education board member, Diana Fessler, openly defended white supremacy. Fessler criticized last year’s resolution “to condemn racism and to advance equity and opportunity for Black students, Indigenous students, and students of color” during the September 28 meeting, claiming that the resolution “has one sentence in it, and it is this: ‘The State Board of Education condemns in the highest terms possible white supremacy culture.’ Now I don’t know how on Earth that could have got past our legal department, because to me it seems patently noncompliant with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” On Wednesday, the board will vote on a resolution by member Brendan Shea to rescind the measure.

“Can you in your wildest dreams imagine that we had adopted a resolution that said, ‘The State Board of Education condemns in the highest terms possible Black culture?’” Fessler continued. “Oh, we’d have a war going on now, wouldn’t we?”

Fessler inaccurately referred to the resolution in question as a measure on critical race theory. The topic, which describes the study of the social construct of race and how society reinforces that construct — think gentrified neighborhoods or segregated school systems — has been the subject of much discussion and targeted disinformation by right-wing operatives in the wake of nationwide protests for racial justice in the summer of 2020.

The fuss over critical race theory, often abbreviated as CRT, partially explains Fessler’s misidentification: Part of the organized effort to sensationalize the well-established sociological theory is to associate any effort to discuss or educate the public on institutional and systemic racism with a fictitious movement to propagandize public education with “woke” litmus tests. Nationwide, angry parents have descended on public school board meetings to protest efforts to include historical context on institutional racism in curricula, arguing that doing so amounts to brainwashing their children. In June, a Connecticut school board changed “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” on its school calendar in recognition of Christopher Columbus’s atrocities — but was soon forced to reverse its decision. In August, the board changed the name back after outraged local residents claimed that the change was part of critical race theory.

Democratic Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney of Cleveland, ranking member of the Ohio House Government Oversight Committee, said Fessler’s comments showed “severe racial bias” and “extremism infecting the Ohio Legislature.”

“There should be zero controversy over condemning white supremacy as a hateful culture of violence and division. Instead, Ms. Fessler’s comments showcase not only severe racial bias but also the extremism infecting the Ohio Legislature. It is outrageous that an elected official who makes decisions about the education of our children would equate white supremacy with Black culture,” Sweeney said in a statement to The Intercept. “To say that condemning white supremacy violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 shows a fundamental ignorance not only of that landmark legislation but also of the definition of white supremacy itself. It is the reason why such condemnations are necessary and warranted.”

Fessler, who is a Republican, was first elected to the Ohio State Board of Education in 1994 and elected again in 1998. She was a state representative from 2001 to 2008. Last year, she ran unopposed and was reelected to the board. Fessler, board President Kohler, state school superintendent Stephanie Siddens, and House Government Oversight Committee Chair Shane Wilkin, a Republican, did not respond to requests for comment.

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