Ron Desantis Is Leading the Gop’s Attack Against “Woke” Public Education

by | Jan 18, 2023 | Racism (Us vs Them)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis campaigns for re-election during a rally on November 7, 2022. Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP via Getty Images

Ron Desantis Is Leading the Gop’s Attack Against “Woke” Public Education

by | Jan 18, 2023 | Racism (Us vs Them)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis campaigns for re-election during a rally on November 7, 2022. Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP via Getty Images
Ron DeSantis does not believe systemic injustices exist in the United States and has explicitly denied that systemic racism exists—characterizing the notion as “a bunch of horse manure.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ disdain for “woke ideology” is on full display.

At a January 2023 inaugural event, the governor boasted that “Florida is where woke goes to die.”

This is more than political bluster.

In just the past month, DeSantis has stacked the board of the New College of Florida, a well-known liberal arts college, with right-wing ideologues and has directed universities to report their diversity efforts and critical race theory classes to his office.

So what, precisely, does Desantis—a potential 2024 presidential nominee—oppose?

That became clear in December 2022 when multiple DeSantis officials appeared before a federal judge to defend the governor’s decision to suspend a local prosecutor whom DeSantis had termed a “woke ideologue.” The judge asked Ryan Newman, DeSantis’ general counsel, to define “woke.”

Newman answered that “woke” is “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.”

Newman added that DeSantis does not believe systemic injustices exist in the United States.

DeSantis, for his part, has explicitly denied that systemic racism exists—characterizing the notion as “a bunch of horse manure.”

In my view as a legal scholar on race and law, Newman’s explanation was a stark admission.

By his own account, Newman placed DeSantis on the side of injustice. We might call DeSantis an “injustice denier.” Akin to climate change, there is no legitimate academic debate about the reality of systemic racism.

It’s real. It’s pervasive. It’s unjust. No amount of denial can change that—even if it scores political points.

Political Campaign Against ‘Woke’

When DeSantis and others bemoan “woke indoctrination,” their claim is not that schools should be value-free zones.

Their claim is that schools teach the wrong values.

This should surprise no one.

In the wake of 2020’s global uprising for racial justice, right-wing think tanks, foundations and officials launched an open smear campaign to stigmatize modest efforts to make American classrooms more inclusive and curriculum more comprehensive.

As early as March 2021, one of the campaign’s chief architects, Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, publicly bragged about weaponizing critical race theory to further that agenda.

Rufo further explained that maligning critical race theory through calculated caricature and distortion was an “obvious” element of a “public persuasion campaign” to erode faith in public schools.

Rufo, one of DeSantis’ recent board appointees, has outlined the end goal: “lay seige to the institutions” and return Americans to a pre-civil rights social order that lacked affirmative commitments to racial inclusion.

A Long History of White Resistance

Proponents often claim that laws and policies designed to restrict classroom conversations about race are necessary to protect mostly white students from emotional discomfort.

Yet over two years into an open disinformation campaign and hundreds of laws designed to suppress “woke” viewpoints, many in the mainstream media still frame anti-racism and anti-anti-racism as competing sides in an educational culture war.

In my view, the culture war framing is odd.

It exaggerates disagreement among typical Americans—most of whom believe students should learn about racism and reject book bans. It falsely recasts a top-down political project as a grassroots uprising. And it minimizes the rising toll on students, parents and educators.

The “culture war” frame also implies Americans are fighting over values, yet rarely makes explicit those competing values.

One thing is clear.

There is little new about this culture war.

It is hard to miss the parallels in rhetoric and tactics between 21st-century anti-anti-racism and 20th-century massive resistance, when segregationists openly defied federal court orders to integrate public schools.

Past generations have invoked “religious liberty,” “school choice” and “parents’ rights” to defend the prevailing social order, defund public schools and discredit efforts to redistribute racial power.

People hold up signs during a rally against critical race theory in Leesburg, Va., on June 12, 2021. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

In my view, many of today’s anti-anti-racists rehearse the same old rhetoric for similar ends.

Past generations harnessed state power to penalize educators who dared to teach about injustice.

Historian Candace Cunningham recounts one example from 1956 South Carolina.

Two years after Brown v. Board of Education, South Carolina’s white Legislature enacted 14 laws designed to stymie civil rights.

This included a law that required all teachers to swear an anti-NAACP oath—a law designed to target Black educators and “destabilize the civil rights movement,” as Cunningham explains.

Impact on Cultural Literacy

A revival of such measures has occurred since 2020.

In at least 15 states, GOP officials have passed “educational gag orders” to chill classroom conversations about race, racism and related topics. This includes Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act,” a portion of which was enjoined in November 2022.

Given the laws’ design and effect, University of Florida Law Professor Kathryn Russell-Brown has likened this legislation to 19th-century anti-literacy laws.

According to free speech advocacy group PEN America, 2022 saw a 250% jump in such laws, which became more punitive and more likely to target higher education and LGBTQ identities.

Similar policies have accelerated at the local level across the country.

As of December 2022, UCLA’s CRT Forward Tracking Project had identified over 130 school district policies that target anti-racist pedagogy and curriculum.

A related study from January 2022 found that state and local anti-literacy laws affected over 900 districts, accounting for 35% of America’s K-12 students.

Given that 2022 saw more educational gag orders than the prior two years combined, that number is no doubt higher now.

Academic Freedom Under State Review

Many of the same GOP officials pushing anti-literacy laws are also actively eroding key safeguards that shield public universities and professors from political interference.

Not surprisingly, DeSantis is a leading proponent of such efforts to curb university independence.

In Texas, the lieutenant governor threatened to terminate tenure after the University of Texas’ faculty leadership reaffirmed the value of academic freedom and the right to teach about race and gender justice.

Right-wing groups also have fueled defamatory campaigns against school leaders, teachers and librarians.

Many of the same groups have spearheaded an unprecedented wave of book bans.

PEN America tallied over 2,500 individual bans from July 2021 to June 2022.

This includes books like “When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball,” which explores how an African American athlete overcame physical limitations and racial prejudice to win medals in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics.

Workers prepare the stage for the 2022 meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla. Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Experts have attributed the extreme rhetoric accompanying book bans and anti-literacy laws to a rise in threats and acts of physical violence. This includes nearly 200 documented anti-LGBTQ+ events in 2022—a twelvefold increase over 2020—and bomb threats targeting historically Black colleges and universities and other entities serving communities of color.

Against this backdrop, it is notable that the midterm elections revealed the limitations of anti-CRT and anti-wokeness rhetoric.

But those limitations seem unlikely to alter GOP talking points or the broader assault on public education.

The incoming GOP House leadership has already renewed its pledge to purge schools of critical race theory and “woke ideology.”

To borrow a phrase from the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, one might conclude that anti-anti-racism embodies a “fear of too much justice.”The Conversation

Republished with permission from The Conversation, by Jonathan Feingold, Associate Professor of Law, Boston University

The Conversation

The Conversation

The Conversation is a nonprofit, independent news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of experts for the public good. We publish trustworthy and informative articles written by academic experts for the general public and edited by our team of journalists.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Us

Related Articles

Jan 31 2023

Tyre Nichols: We Must End the Denial of Humanity

Tyre D. Nichols was pulled over by Memphis police Jan. 7 on his way home from taking pictures of the sky, just moments away from his home. Police said he was driving...
Jan 26 2023

Kentucky Republican Women Host the Murderer of Breonna Taylor to Promote His Book

A former Louisville PD officer wrote a gripe-laden book about his “side of the story” in the murder of Breonna Taylor. A Republican Women’s Club...
woman in gray cardigan holding her face
Jan 22 2023

NYC Study Finds Racist Beauty Standards Leave Communities of Color More Exposed to Harmful Chemicals

Researchers have found hazardous chemicals in numerous beauty products available in the U.S. Skin lighteners have been shown to contain hydroquinone, corticosteroids...
Jan 13 2023

GOP Racism: Wisconsin Party Official Bob Spindell Boasted About Suppressing Black and Hispanic Vote

Bob Spindell is a Trump faction conspiracy theorist who has actively tried to sabotage and influence the outcome of Wisconsin elections based upon his own bias and...
Nov 26 2022

How States Used Racist Land Laws to Exclude and Displace Asian Americans

In the 19th and 20th centuries, more than a dozen states enacted legislation barring Asians from purchasing property. But immigrants and their families used the court...
Nov 13 2022

Knoxville’s Black Community: First the Racism, Now the Medical Debt

The story of how Knoxville’s Black residents came to be its primary victims of medical debt is written in the city’s changing landscape.
Oct 11 2022

The Legacy of Racism Endured by Black Women Owning and Maintaining Their Homes

The racism pervading the housing industry is now well known. The real estate industry has excluded Black Americans from homeownership and reinforced racial segregation...
Sep 24 2022

White Nationalism: A Political Ideology Centered on Racism and Conspiracy Theories

Aside from inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric and Qanon fantasies, the conspiracy theory white nationalist are pushing in campaigns across the country is Trump’s...
Sep 19 2022

Racist Governors Are Engaged in Human Trafficking

Racist governors Abbott and DeSantis are not even original in their mistreatment of immigrants. The same cruel scam was perpetrated on black families in the 1960s by...
Sep 13 2022

Voter Suppression: The Fight Against an Age-Old Effort to Block Black Americans From Voting

As a new wave of voter suppression restrictions makes voting harder for people who struggle to read — now 1 in 5 Americans — people like Olivia Coley-Pearson have taken...
Subscribe for Updates!

Subscribe for Updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This