Race to the bottom in the ‘Sunshine State’

In treating social and industrial diseases, the great jurist Louis Brandeis once wrote, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Judged by that standard, Florida can no longer credibly claim to be “The Sunshine State,” given its determination to lead what is becoming a nationwide drive to regulate discussions of racial discrimination in our nation’s classrooms.

In June 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis blasted “Critical Race Theory” — which is not taught in Florida’s public schools — for encouraging “kids to hate our country and to hate each other. It is state-sanctioned racism…” At his behest, the state’s board of education banned assertions “that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.” The board also barred the use of primary or secondary sources from the Pulitzer-Prize winning 1619 project that examines the implications of the arrival of the first slave ship in North America.

The Republican-dominated Florida legislature is now moving to impose additional limits on teachers. Bills introduced in the Senate and Assembly prohibit instruction in K-12 public schools and employment training programs that could make people “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” for “historical injustices because of their race, color, sex, or national origin.”

The legislation does not specify criteria for determining whether a student or employee legitimately feels — or actually has been — indoctrinated. “The moment” an instructor feels “any sort of hesitation about saying something,” proclaimed Bryan Avila, sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, “it is always safe and prudent for them to basically err on the side of caution and not say it.”

The race to the bottom in Florida has already had the chilling effect no doubt intended by supporters.

A few weeks ago, the Osceola County School District, citing the need to review materials in light of concerns about CRT, cancelled a seminar to help teachers decide how and what to teach during Black History Month offered by Michael Butler, a professor of history at Flagler College.

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association has predicted that the legislation will deter teachers from addressing basic concepts, including “the idea that slavery is bad.” And the Florida PTA has joined the NAACP, Florida Equality, and the ACLU in opposing the bills. “Hiding facts doesn’t change them,” Spar noted. “Give kids the whole truth and equip them to make up their own minds and think for themselves.”

That truth, it is important to emphasize, includes abundant evidence of racism in Florida that has been “embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.”

Does anyone wonder whether Bryan Avila thinks instructors should “err on the side of caution” before presenting these facts to students:

In the decades after slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Florida enacted 19 Jim Crow segregation laws. Blacks who entered a railroad car reserved for whites could be sent to the pillory, whipped (not exceeding 39 stripes), or both. Miscegenation was punished by imprisonment of up to ten years, with half the $1,000 fine awarded to the individual who reported the crime. Blacks were not allowed to attend all-white public schools and universities. In 1957 — in defiance of U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation decisions — the Florida Supreme Court concluded that federal law could be superseded by state law and refused to order the University of Florida to admit a Black student to its law school. In 1958, the Florida legislature empowered county boards of education to close public schools during “emergencies” or when federal troops arrived to enforce integration decrees. As late as 1967, Sarasota passed an ordinance requiring segregated beaches. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Florida prevented Blacks from voting by requiring literacy tests (asked to define “habeas corpus,” a citizen responded, “Habeas corpus means this Black man ain’t gonna register today”); poll taxes, and grandfather clauses (exempting anyone who had a relative who cast a ballot or was eligible to do so prior to Jan. 1, 1867). In 1920, an attempt by a Black man to vote in Ocoee, Fla., ignited the largest recorded episode of election violence in U.S. history. Although many members of the community knew who the perpetrators were, no one was convicted for the murders of dozens of Blacks. Not surprisingly, turnout at the ballot box among Black males plummeted from about 62 percent in the 1870s and ‘80s to 11 percent.

Systemic racism has, of course, been challenged throughout American history, often by reformers who insisted that the nation live up to the principles in the Declaration of Independence. Substantial progress has been made, most notably after the Civil War and through the courageous efforts of civil rights activists in the 1950s and ‘60s.

But as long as cynical, counterfeit conservative politicians and cable TV con artists continue to find receptive audiences when they blow their white victimization dog whistles, it should be clear that lots of work remains to be done.

And all Americans should recognize that it’s unwise and irresponsible to decide where we ought to go if we have censored information about where we are and have been.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags American history Black history Critical race theory Florida Florida Republicans Institutional racism Jim Crow laws race and society Racism Reconstruction Era Republican Party Ron DeSantis The 1619 Project White supremacy in the United States

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