Florida Governor Ronald DeSantis is offering a master class in white nationalism. The sunshine state’s governor is poised to launch a presidential campaign, having run political plays straight from the playbook of confederate conspirators, including Robert E. Lee and Bull Connor.
Often Florida occupies the center of our political universe because of its role as the nation’s largest bellwether state, sometimes determining the outcome of the Presidential election. While we wait for DeSantis to launch his presidential bid, we should all “work woke” when considering how his rhetoric and policies undermine democracy.
Over the last two years, DeSantis has introduced a dizzying array of legislation that targets, and in some cases criminalizes, academic freedom, freedom of speech, and bodily autonomy. He’s signed executive orders attempting to violate Title IX and HIPPA protections. He has targeted public schools, libraries, and medical providers. The goal of much of this activity is to distract from the many problems plaguing the citizens of Florida and to weaken democratic institutions and practices.
As of February 2, 2023, nearly 30,000 Floridians have died from COVID-19. Rather than addressing the coronavirus epidemic or otherwise focusing energy to keep Floridians safe from the virus, DeSantis has advanced efforts to police protesters working to end police violence against Black people.
Under DeSantis’ anti-protest bill (HB 1/SB 484), anyone who participates in a peaceful protest that turns violent, to no fault of their own, can be arrested and charged with a third-degree felony.
A peaceful protestor can face up to five years in prison and lose their right to vote including if violence is provoked by state actors (police officers) and others. I’ve written elsewhere about DeSantis’ efforts to distract from enduring educational inequalities (see: Newsweek).
Black students comprise 23% of the public school population in Florida, yet are only 10% of those enrolled in gifted and talented programs. White students are two times more likely to be enrolled in at least one AP class when compared to Black students. Black students are 2.4 times more likely to be suspended than White students.
Additionally, the housing market in Florida continues to suffer. Floridians are struggling to rebuild homes and secure homeowners insurance with some paying triple the national average. People living in Florida know first-hand the impact of DeSantis’ totalitarian approach to legislation and culture wars — but we should all be concerned about its impact. This list is illustrative, not exhaustive.
Wherever there is history, there is Black History. In spite of this fact, Ronald DeSantis and the College Board insist that white nationalists’ history should be the core curriculum while debating which parts of my history may, one day, be offered, as an elective. This is an example of white supremacy. White supremacy is not simply Black bodies dying at the hands of police officers, it’s powerful white men suppressing fact-based parts of our history.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve encountered more people interested in discussing the merits of my undergraduate degree in African American studies and the related course being piloted by the college board.
What’s lost in many of these conversations is that the people, moments, and contributions made by Black queer, trans, and non-binary leaders like Bayard Rustin (the architect of the 1963 March on Washington), Marsha P. Johnson (who sparked the Stonewall Rebellion and later founded STAR to meet the needs of trans and queer children and young adults in New York), and James Baldwin (the scribe who wrote about painful truths about America with the hope that we would grow from acknowledging the ugly truths about our history) should be taught in public schools that are running away from saying gay or trans and telling truths about the contributions made by non-white people and communities.
Truths that can (and should) be taught in Florida under current law — despite Gov. DeSantis’ lie that the College Board’s pilot Advanced Placement Black Studies course violates HB7. DeSantis’ weapons of mass distraction create a chilling effect that hurt the education of tomorrow’s leaders the most.
Educators in states throughout the country are avoiding curricula that involve these subjects for fear of tripping over intentionally vague policies. Librarians have emptied bookshelves out of an abundance of fear. These actions are happening in states like Florida preemptively. DeSantis knew that those who did see behind his smoke and mirrors could not afford lawsuits from the state or school districts for simply doing their job — even if eventually they would win. These actions are also happening in states where laws haven’t been proposed.
Governor DeSantis intentionally changed the public name of the bill from “Individual Freedom” to “Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act” to stir up the worst racial prejudices, fears, and biases in people. DeSantis’ message and the law’s language are not aligned. As much as he touts the “Stop Woke Act” as a law that curtails “critical race theory” and “intersectionality,” it does neither.
The curriculum censorship language in the Stop WOKE Act only serves to put in law prohibitions driven by projections of white guilt, anxiety over changing demographics, and fears of exclusion.
The prohibitions in the law highlight actions that have long been taken against marginalized communities that white people don’t want their children or themselves to experience or know about. A fundamental part of white nationalism pathology is denying that which is in front of you — it’s this logic that enabled enslavers to convince themselves that African people were not humans worthy of the same rights and privileges they covet.
At a time when we should be celebrating Black History, Gov. DeSantis chose to use the Black LGBTQ/SGL community and our history as pawns in a political culture war ahead of his presidential campaign launch. Many of DeSantis’ proposals are unnecessary and harmful. A number of them may also prove to be unlawful.
At present, my hope is that more of us read the bills and actions taken critically; that we resist taking pre-emptive measures in response to DeSantism, and we do more to meet the cognitive, social, and emotional needs of the children and communities targeted by political bullies who place privilege over people and democracy.
Dr. David J. Johns is the Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition.
Follow him on Twitter at @MrDavidJohns. Learn more about NBJC at www.nbjc.org.
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