Florida’s unapologetically racist governor, Ron DeSantis, has effectively declared war on the Black freedom movement.
Florida’s unapologetically racist governor, Ron DeSantis, announced last week that he is banning an Advanced Placement pilot course that would have taught Florida teenagers about the Black freedom movement, Black cultures and contemporary issues that impact Black people. Anyone who has glanced at the newspaper in the past decade, let alone read a book on the subject, knows that issues of mass incarceration, police, prisons, intersectionality and the politics of sexuality are all deeply relevant to the experience of African American communities.
With a nod toward his homophobic base and illustrating his own ignorance, DeSantis asked the question, how could queer theory be relevant to African American studies? Perhaps if he had taken an African American studies class somewhere along the way he would know the names of world-renowned award-winning writers, artists and courageous activists whose long careers and eloquent words answer that question from myriad angles. He would know about the grand poet Audre Lorde who wrote about love uncircumscribed, facing cancer heroically and the dangers of living our lives in closets and compartments. He would know about the unrivaled James Baldwin, who taught more about the U.S. to the U.S. than any mainstream textbook ever could, and also nurtured his readers into a larger humanity. And he would know about political figures ranging from Bayard Rustin, one of the organizers of the great march on Washington, to Miss Major, the Black trans activist who led in the historic Stonewall protests against unchecked police violence against New York’s LGBTQ (especially trans) community in the late 1960s. Their lives and stories are why queer theory is important to Black history.
Perhaps DeSantis would have known this had he not had a skewed and impoverished education. If he had taken an African American studies course in the 1980s and ’90s when he was in school, perhaps DeSantis would also know about the long and bloody history of racism in Florida, and the righteous freedom fighters who organized against it. These struggles were not just against “hate” or prejudice; they were a response to systemwide discrimination, greed and domination.
For example, NAACP organizers Harry and Henriette Moore were blown up on Christmas night in 1951, 130 miles from DeSantis’s hometown of Jacksonville, by white vigilantes who knew nothing of the Moore family’s culture, motives or life experiences — and likely didn’t want to know. The Moores lobbied for the right of Black teachers to have equal pay and working conditions comparable to their white counterparts.
Even closer to Jacksonville, in what is heralded as the country’s oldest city, St. Augustine, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was renting a house in the summer of 1964 when local vigilantes shot into the house to intimidate him into leaving the state. Perhaps in his hypothetical African American studies class, little Ronnie would have learned about that heinous attack, along with the Tallahassee Bus Boycott, which protested the humiliating Jim Crow treatment that was meted out to Black citizens on the city’s segregated public buses, or the fact that for much of Florida’s history, its beautiful beaches were for whites only.
Of course, DeSantis’s attack on Black studies curricula is only in small measure about education and ignorance. It is true that he is a part of an unabashedly ignorant political sect comprising people who are averse to evidence, research and empirical facts that don’t suit them. So, in that context, DeSantis’s decision to foster the miseducation of Florida students to suit his own ends, is not surprising. But the story is bigger than that.
In attacking African American studies, DeSantis has taken one more step toward not only a full-on embrace of white nationalism and authoritarianism, but also toward situating himself in a truly “alternative reality,” where facts don’t matter, research is irrelevant, expertise is sidelined, and young people are scurrilously miseducated.
This is apparently what a dress rehearsal for a GOP nomination for president looks like in 2023. But, how does one decision about textbooks in a small set of pilot high school AP courses warrant such a conclusion? Because it is not one action, but one among many, and it mirrors a long legacy of brutish repression of ideas and persecution of dissident educators and intellectuals carried out by the kind of leader that DeSantis aspires to become.
DeSantis declared his war on anti-racism in his gubernatorial acceptance speech on the 2022 election night. In doing so, he indirectly also declared war on the Black freedom movement itself.
“Florida is where woke will come to die,” he proclaimed to a cheering throng of supporters.
It is ironic that “wokeness” is what a right-wing movement has galvanized itself against. “We want to be asleep, uninformed and unaware” is what they are conveying. Not knowing is celebrated.
In this way, DeSantis and his allies uphold the kind of indoctrination he claims to oppose. He stands in the tradition of the Nazis who burned books for fear that their antisemitic lies would be challenged in print. He stands in the tradition of the 1976-1983 Argentinian dictatorship that jailed and exiled dissident professors and killed their students. He stands in the tradition of Turkey’s dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has purged, jailed or exiled over 100,000 educators and intellectuals because they wrote and taught ideas he saw as a political threat.
DeSantis’s dangerous actions are textbook proto-fascist measures. His militant opposition to any teaching of the Black freedom struggle is also reminiscent of the South African apartheid regime’s book banning and curricular and speaker censorship, which limited the circulation of ideas that could undermine the legitimacy of an unjust system.
DeSantis’s actions are about intimidation, silencing potential dissident voices, preempting critical thinking from young people that might lead to informed political action, and flexing his muscle to silence voices that do not echo his own. But his actions are also racist.
Racism is part and parcel of capitalism, rooted in slavery and genocide of Black and Indigenous people. Telling lies about those people — erasing who and what they/we really were — was a necessary corollary to land theft, genocide, kidnapping and enslavement. Maintaining those lies today is integral to upholding racial capitalism.
DeSantis’s actions and what they are harbingers of cannot be ignored. As I write, there are over 50 hate groups, some of them armed, operating in the state of Florida, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Florida is the state where unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin was killed with impunity by a local racist vigilante. These are consequences of half-truths, lies and erasures. But again, racism is not just about ignorance or “hate,” but also about power, domination and exploitation. The spurious ideas and omitted truths are what the political and economic practices get wrapped up in.
DeSantis’s efforts are a part of a larger attack on progressive scholars and teachers. Florida teacher Amy Donofrio was fired for hanging a BLM flag in her classroom. Another teacher in Texas was fired for wearing a BLM mask to school. Over a dozen states have laws passed or pending that seek to censor and suppress the teaching of issues related to race, racism, gender and Black Americans.
The idea of “critical race theory” — a label broadly misapplied by the right — has been the lightning rod, but the right’s attack on knowledge and education is much broader. Professors speaking and teaching about Palestine and supporting the Palestine civil society-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign to protest Israel’s racist, repressive and discriminatory policies against Palestinians is another node of the McCarthy-like anti-education push by the right.
But here is the good news. Florida is not only home to the likes of Ron DeSantis. It is also home to the smart, young, radical organizers in the Dream Defenders, the Florida Rights Restoration Project, Florida Rising and the Power U Center for Change. These are the forces of the future. These are the young organizers who are pushing back against the bullish backwardness of DeSantis and Trump, and they have peers in every state. We have to support them as much as we oppose the racist and repressive agenda of the right.
Barbara Ransby is a historian, author and longtime activist based in Chicago. She is author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement and is president of the National Women’s Studies Association.
Featured image: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference in Daytona Beach Shores, Florida on January 18, 2023. (Paul Hennessy, Sopa Images, Lightrocket via Getty Images)