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DeSantis’s “War on Woke” Is As Troubling As We Feared
In the spirit of taking a closer look at the new and frankly increasingly disturbing crop of GOP leaders, let’s head down to the political swamplands of Florida to examine the education and culture wars recently ignited by Gov. Ron DeSantis. These provide a preview of what we might expect to hear more regularly as DeSantis weighs a primary challenge to reigning MAGA king Donald Trump.
DeSantis was back in the news on Wednesday with an unusual direct challenge to the College Board. As the National Review breathlessly reported, on January 12 the DeSantis administration, through its Department of Education’s “Office of Articulation,” blocked approval for an AP African American Studies (APAAS) curriculum in the state, claiming to the College Board that the course is “contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”
By “Florida law,” the Department means the cringe-inducing “Stop WOKE Act” which bans the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) in the state. CRT is a heady analytical framework that seeks to deconstruct and reframe how racism has shaped laws and institutions in the United States, but the right has sought to reduce its meaning to any and all discussions about race and systemic discrimination.
Let’s take a closer look at the “Stop WOKE Act” and how it is being deployed in Florida in both higher and now secondary school education, and then place it in the larger context of a DeSantis-led GOP, should he seek and actually win the nomination.
What the “Stop WOKE Act” seeks to prohibit
The controversial (and likely illegal) Stop WOKE Act was signed into law by DeSantis in 2022. By its terms, it seeks to prohibit any educational instruction that implies a person’s “status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, national origin, or sex.”
The bill bans both schools and workplaces from “subjecting any student or employee to training or instruction that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels such individuals to believe” that any of certain specified concepts “constitutes discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin.” Those prohibited concepts include the idea of inherent “unconscious racism”; any instruction that suggests an individual “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of his or her race or color; and any suggestion that “merit” or “colorblindness” is itself racist or sexist.
The prohibition against even discussing the idea that there might be systemic racism in America, or that a “meritocracy” might in itself be a racially unfair system given historical and socio-economic disadvantages for racial minorities, or that you simply can’t teach subjects that might make white students feel distress because their forefathers did bad, racist things, is inherently problematic. It has the real effect of chilling the expression of speech because educators, fearing lawsuits or disciplinary action, will tend to steer clear of the danger.
The legal status of the Stop WOKE Act remains uncertain.
Given its implications under the First Amendment, the Act and the DeSantis administration’s “war on wokeness” is receiving significant judicial scrutiny.
In November 2022, U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker issued a temporary injunction on a portion of the Act that sought to restrict race subject instruction in the context of higher education. He ruled that the law violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantees because it bars Florida's educators from teaching about certain viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting "unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints" favored by the state. “This is positively dystopian," Walker wrote in his 139-page opinion. "It should go without saying that if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’”
The DeSantis administration's view on “wokeness” was made official during a different hearing, in December 2022, when it went to court to defend the firing of a state prosecutor whom DeSantis had dubbed a “woke ideologue.” DeSantis’s general counsel was asked what “woke” meant to him. He answered that it is “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” He later added that DeSantis does not believe systemic injustices exist in the United States.
If you think that was a gaffe, it wasn’t. Rather, it is the explicit view of the governor and would-be leading GOP presidential candidate. DeSantis has stated that he doesn’t believe any systemic racism exists. It’s “a bunch of horse manure,” he has declared. (It is unclear what DeSantis believes actually accounts for vast disparities in income, police homicides, incarceration rates, educational opportunities, health factors, and housing between racial minorities and whites if not systemic racism, but perhaps he will explain one day.)
The most recent refusal to approve the College Board’s APAAS class for use within the state of Florida may also trigger legal challenges soon, because once again the law is favoring certain forms of instructions over others.
Where is DeSantis going with all this?
In his inaugural address in January of this year, DeSantis boasted that the state of “Florida is where woke goes to die.” And to back that up, he began inserting his cronies and his politics directly into state-funded higher education. He stacked the board of the New College of Florida with right-wingers and demanded that state universities “provide a comprehensive list of all staff, programs and campus activities related to diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory."
This move alarmed many educators and faculty advocates. United Faculty of Florida President J. Andrew Gothard indicated his union is "deeply concerned" about this "horrible directive." He added, “Attempts such as these by the governor to chill speech and to intimidate those he disagrees with into remaining silent, altering their curriculum, and silencing their students are an affront to democracy and the American way of life.” Gothard continued, “Let those who supported Governor DeSantis in the recent election heed this warning: A man who will silence those [with] whom he disagrees — in the classroom and beyond — will one day find a reason to silence you as well.”
DeSantis’s hard lean on anti-free speech principles when it comes to race (and sexual orientation and trans identity, as his “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill makes clear) stands in marked contrast to his administration’s position even a few years ago. On April 15, 2019, DeSantis held a press conference to announce that the state’s 12 public universities and 28 state colleges had agreed to adopt a “free speech resolution” based on a University of Chicago report. That resolution declared that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even most members of our communities to be offensive, unwise or immoral.” The statement emphasized that educators and students should respond to those ideas “not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose.”
This of course occurred at a time when far-right speakers were often being “canceled” from speaking on campuses by student protests because they espoused hate or even violence against vulnerable communities. Now that he has discovered the political value of taking on “woke” culture, however, DeSantis appears to have no issue tossing aside these First Amendment principles in favor of state-led suppression of free speech—a telling example of his recent embrace of core fascist principles.
This apparent about-face isn’t unusual for DeSantis. Once a touter of the effectiveness and need for vaccines, DeSantis is now tacking right of his once mentor and now political rival Donald Trump by promoting anti-vax positions. DeSantis understands that in order to beat Trump in the primaries, he will need to toss red-meat to the base on every conceivable culture war issue, from CRT to drag queens to vaccines. Inevitably, this means DeSantis will lean in harder wherever he can exploit fear, misinformation, or prejudice.
Whether his follow GOP rivals or other leaders in the party will have the courage to publicly challenge his views remains to be seen, but so far it seems unlikely. Having fed their voters steadily on a diet of grievance and race- and gay-baiting, the only way to keep their loyalty is to double down.
In short, it’s probably going to get even uglier. But as it does, liberals and progressives will have opportunities to distinguish themselves from hateful rhetoric and the politics of division. There are indications from the recent midterms that these issues actually carry little weight with voters and that far-right extremism turns off moderates in big numbers. DeSantis also will need to explain how fighting “woke” culture beyond Florida helps ordinary working families, tames inflation, or reduces crime. Manufactured outrage may work with his base in Florida, but may not translate as readily to the rest of the country.