In his 1966 essay “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes,” James Baldwin offered a searing explanation of why and how people in the US so vigorously dismiss the reality of racism. Baldwin’s essay, which is still depressingly relevant today, examines the deep need within the American soul to assuage white Americans’ discomfort with racism—a need that, in turn, becomes a sort of load-bearing psychosis that perpetuates our collective inability to come to terms with our own history, let alone heal its still-festering wounds. That inability to come to terms hurts everyone, even white people who imagine themselves as history’s perennial protagonists.
“People who imagine history flatters them, as it does indeed since they wrote it, are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves or the world,” Baldwin writes. “This is the place in which it seems to me most white Americans find themselves. They are dimly or vividly aware that the history they fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.”
More people should read Baldwin—while they still can. After all, the same existential incoherence that he describes is currently manifesting in the meltdown that Republicans in Florida and elsewhere are having over anything with even a whiff of a connection to anti-racism or Critical Race Theory (CRT). For many on the right, much like “political correctness” and “affirmative action” did in bygone days, CRT has become a catch-all term to describe a perceived anti-American cultural conspiracy to make white people feel bad about themselves—and their backlash has been fierce.
That backlash is the driving force behind two current legislative efforts in Florida, the Stop WOKE Act and “Don’t Say Gay” state bill, both of which have now passed the state House and Senate and are headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s desk. Rather than taking responsibility for and reckoning with Florida’s abhorrent history of racism and discrimination toward the LGBTQ community, Florida is about to pass these two bills, which are shaping up to become the next chapter in that history.
The Florida Board of Education already passed a rule in June 2021 banning the teaching of CRT in Florida public schools, but the Stop WOKE Act takes this manufactured panic even further. Once signed into law, it will grant parents the right to sue schools and teachers for teaching material that causes “discomfort” for students. Opponents of the legislation have expressed grave concerns that it will lead to further whitewashing of history and literature courses while driving educators to McCarthy-esque levels of self-censorship.
While claims that CRT is “anti-American” and discriminates against white people are laughable to anyone who has even a rudimentary understanding of what CRT is and how it fits into the broader field of scholarly inquiry, the cultural hysteria stoked by these claims will nevertheless enable the sinister airbrushing of American history. Moreover, the manufactured outrage over CRT, initially led by conservative think-tank fellow and anti-evolution advocate Christopher Rufo, has been a grossly effective means for conservatives to rile up the Republican voter base and fundraise ahead of the midterm elections.
In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia University, co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum, and one of the scholars who developed the legal academic framework of Critical Race Theory, summed up CRT thusly: “Critical race theory is based on the premise that race is socially constructed, yet it is real through social constructions.”
This means that even if race as a biologically, culturally, or existentially determinative category is a socially constructed fiction, the world we live in, which has been built by people who believe that fiction, and which reinforces a social order in which the fiction is accepted as truth, makes it real. Along with other critical academic disciplines and subdisciplines, CRT pushes us to study the societal dynamics by which these fictions are socially constructed and by which these social constructions become enshrined in law, government policy, housing policy, etc. To study such questions is not “anti-American,” Crenshaw argues; it’s to better know what America is, how it came to be what it is, and where, why, and for whom it is falling short of its promises.
“We need to pay attention to what has happened in this country and how what has happened is continuing to create differential outcomes, so that we can become the democratic republic we say we are,” Crenshaw asserted in a separate interview.
She added that the conservative backlash against Critical Race Theory in particular and anti-racism more broadly is the newest iteration of a historically tried and true tactic often deployed to thwart struggles for racial justice and equity. “The idea that anti-racism is racism against white people has got to be the oldest talking point in their playbook. There is not a thing happening today that we have not seen before, including the ascendance of racial demagoguery on the anti-democratic, authoritarian, and nationalist impulses of a population mobilized through the discourse of aggrievement.”
Conservative dark money groups are pouring millions of dollars into ad campaigns against Critical Race Theory being taught in schools, and Super PACs and conservative political campaigns are milking the issue for all it’s worth ahead of this year’s election cycle.
The panic has already prompted some of the most ardent conservative voices to try to stifle training courses and lectures that don’t even include Critical Race Theory.
In one local battle, conservative parent groups in Brevard County have accused the county’s school district of using a training program focused on social and emotional learning that they claim is CRT in disguise, citing a 2020 blog post on anti-racism from the training company’s website. In the uproar over Brevard County Public Schools, the vice president of conservative group Parents Defending Education claimed that social and emotional learning is “a Trojan horse to bring critical race theory and LGBTQ+ curriculum to the classroom”—a mask-off comment if ever there was one.
In another instance, Dr. Michael Butler, a history professor at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, had a lecture on civil rights history that he was supposed to deliver to Osceola County teachers canceled in January in response to allegations that the lecture would relate to Critical Race Theory.
“The only indication that I have [of] why our seminar was targeted, was because of the topic of the long civil rights movement. According to the district, this topic ‘raises red flags’ with the committee and the committee had to vet the materials, but didn’t have time to meet before the Saturday it was to take place,” said Dr. Butler in an interview with The Real News. “History is not supposed to make us feel comfortable. History is supposed to cause serious reflection on how the past continues to influence the present.”
The committee was put together by the Osceola County School District Superintendent in response to concerns from Gov. DeSantis over Critical Race Theory. Dr. Butler said the district was afraid that state funds would be punitively withheld in response to the presentation, even though no one from the county ever asked to see the presentation itself. The chilling effect of the Stop WOKE Act being introduced in the Florida legislature was already taking hold.
Dr. Butler’s lecture was on the history of the civil rights movement, not just in the mid-20th century, but stretching back to the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling. It also incorporated Dr. Butler’s own research on economic civil rights activism in Pensacola, Florida. He noted that he had never encountered this kind of censorship throughout his entire academic career. Even though he’s received much more support than hate mail over the incident, he noted the issue has instilled fear in public educators around the state and among his history students who are now apprehensive about entering public education in Florida after they graduate. He characterized the issue as an example of how the march toward totalitarianism in politicians includes heavy doses of instilled professional fear and intellectual censorship.
“These are the real-life consequences of political grandstanding, because CRT was not part of the presentation. CRT is not taught in the public school system. There’s no evidence that has ever been produced that this is actually happening,” added Dr. Butler. “This demonstrates the very real concerns that teachers have in public schools about whether they will be allowed to do their jobs without being scrutinized constantly by unqualified outsiders, because that’s what’s really at stake.”
One of the difficulties with navigating the culture war panic over CRT is acknowledging that the anger and opposition expressed by many average citizens may be genuinely and deeply felt, even if the pundits, politicians, and consultants stoking and stage-managing said panic are doing so for deeply cynical and hypocritical reasons. One need only look at past comments from the high-profile purveyors of anti-CRT sentiment—who claim that CRT is itself “racist” and frequently paint themselves or their allies as victims of “woke mobs” whenever they face public backlash for their comments—to see that they may not be the best arbiters of what is and isn’t racist. Exhibit A: Ben Shapiro.
It’s also worth noting that even the political figureheads stoking and benefiting from anti-CRT hysteria, like DeSantis, have a less-than-sterling record of making racist dog-whistle comments in public. In 2018, for instance, DeSantis infamously claimed that his Democratic opponent in the Florida gubernatorial race, Andrew Gillum, who is Black, would “monkey up” the economy if elected.
Then, in a truly Trumpian display of defensive gaslighting, DeSantis spokesperson Stephen Lawson claimed that “Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses. To characterize it as anything else is absurd.” This is not a one-off, either; DeSantis’s Press Secretary Christina Pushaw recently caused an uproar by suggesting on social media that neo-Nazi demonstrators in Orlando may have been there as part of a false-flag operation. After taking his time to respond to public outcry over the demonstrations, DeSantis suggested that the outcry was itself a political attack against him manufactured by Democrats.
The anti-CRT panic has also been endlessly amplified by Fox News. Outrage over Critical Race Theory and the invocation of the politics of racial resentment have been gifts that keep on giving for Fox News, with its obsessive coverage taking off in the summer of 2020 but, curiously (or not so curiously), dropping significantly after the Virginia gubernatorial race in the fall of 2021. As the 2022 midterm elections approach, one can expect that this coverage will increase once again.
Florida Republicans have an abysmal record when it comes to supporting and funding public education, opting instead to push for “school choice” and school privatization. The recent focus on Critical Race Theory, much like the cultural backlash to Brown v. Board of Education, has become yet another avenue through which elected officials can levy attacks on the institution of public education as well as teachers, unions, and the students and communities that will be negatively impacted by the broad censorship they are advocating for.
If Florida Republicans actually cared about helping students, the state wouldn’t rank 43rd in the nation in per-pupil spending, while ranking just one spot from last place (which is occupied by New York) in terms of wealth inequality. Rather than address Florida’s ranking as the third-worst state in the US in regards to average teacher pay or the crumbling infrastructure of public schools, Florida has pushed to defund school districts that did not adhere to DeSantis’ ban on masks during the coronavirus pandemic and currently funds vouchers to pay for students to attend private schools, expanding funds for these vouchers by $200 million in 2021.
This, again, is not an aberration. It is, rather, a continuation of the dark side of Floridian history, which the state is currently working to erase from public memory. In 1808, for instance, when the US slave trade was abolished, Florida became a hotbed for the illegal slave trade as ships would unload slaves near Jacksonville to be transported and sold into Georgia.
Black people were more likely to be lynched in the state of Florida than in any other state from 1877 to 1950.
In January 1923, the town of Rosewood, Florida, was destroyed by a white mob and the Black residents were massacred.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the expansion of Interstate 95 in Miami, Florida, displaced thousands of Black residents. Florida was also a hotbed of Jim Crow segregation laws, with 19 laws passed up until 1967, and the state imposed some of the harshest penalties on record.
Majority-Black towns like Tallevast, Florida, have long suffered from the effects of environmental racism and industrial poisoning.
Before the LA riots that took place in response to the acquittal of the police officers who brutalized Rodney King in 1991, there were riots in Miami in 1980 in response to the acquittal of police officers who beat Arthur McDuffie to death. Then another police murder incited a similar response in Miami in 1989.
In many ways, the 2012 murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, inspired the Black Lives Matter movement.
Racism systemically lives on in Florida and around the US through the violence of mass, police brutality, racist voter disenfranchisement laws, racial disparities in pay, economic security, occupational segregation, education, and the list goes on.
Florida has previously passed anti-trans legislation as well, and several transgender women have been brutally murdered in the state. Now Florida Republicans are pursuing more anti-LGBTQ+ policies, including an amendment to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would require outing teen LGBTQ students, reminiscent of the Johns Committee in the 1950s that sought to out and terrorize LGBTQ people throughout Florida, with an emphasis on teachers and students. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed Florida’s House with majority Republican support on Feb. 24 and passed the Senate on March 8.
Florida is also now being subjected to nationwide efforts led by anti-LGBTQ groups to ban books about sexual orientation and gender identity. These same groups are pushing more anti-trans legislative efforts, such as a bill to criminalize health care providers who provide gender-affirming medical care to minors, and a bill to allow healthcare insurers and providers to deny care to LGBTQ+ patients.
The oppression and censorship inherent in these policy efforts led by DeSantis, who is trying to position himself as a right-wing culture war leader amid rumors that he will be in contention for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is part of a long record of racism and anti-LGBTQ efforts in Florida. And it is setting dangerous precedents for similar efforts and legislation across the US.