By Jonathan Feingold
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.
Political campaign against ‘woke’
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Jonathan Feingold is Associate Professor of Law at Boston University.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.