Florida’s ‘anti-woke’ bills raise concerns for scholars who teach about race

Faculty say politicians are mischaracterizing critical race theory, and they fear the damage will be real.
Gov. Ron DeSantis appears at a Dec. 15, 2021, event in Sumter County to announce his Stop W.O.K.E. Act, a legislative initiative that takes aim at critical race theory.
Gov. Ron DeSantis appears at a Dec. 15, 2021, event in Sumter County to announce his Stop W.O.K.E. Act, a legislative initiative that takes aim at critical race theory. [ Facebook ]
Published Feb. 2, 2022|Updated Feb. 2, 2022

When University of Florida professor Chris Busey filed a grievance through his faculty union last fall, many saw it as evidence that Florida politics had again spilled into the world of academia.

Busey complained that a supervisor had questioned the wording of his specialization on a university website — critical studies in race, ethnicity and culture. The title, he was told, brought to mind “critical race theory,” an academic concept under attack by Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican leaders.

DeSantis sharpened his assault in December by launching the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, an effort to “take on both corporate wokeness and critical race theory.” It’s a collection of bills aimed at ridding Florida’s classrooms of “race or sex scapegoating” and “divisive concepts.”

Now, as the legislation easily makes its way through the House and Senate, university faculty across the state are voicing fears about its impact on the scholarship around race.

Jonathan Cox
Jonathan Cox [ University of Central Florida ]

“I’m definitely concerned,” said Jonathan Cox, a sociology professor at the University of Central Florida who is teaching a graduate course on critical race theory this semester and wonders if he’ll be allowed to continue.

“It’s sort of, what kind of footwork will we have to do to teach things that will be meaningful?” he said.

“People are waiting to see if the other shoe drops,” said University of Florida law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown, director of the school’s Race and Crime Center for Justice. “Is our work valued? Are we able to continue our work?”

On Tuesday in the House, members of the State Affairs Committee approved House Bill 7, known as the “individual freedom” bill, aimed at critical race theory. It would outlaw any schooling or workplace training which teaches that “members of one race, color, sex, or national origin are morally superior to members of another race, color, sex, or national origin” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

The bill’s next stop is the Education & Employment Committee.

A companion bill, SB 148, recently cleared the Senate Education Committee with a 6-3 vote.

While the Senate version addresses the K-12 system, parts of the House bill include higher education as well. The legislation also would expand the definition of discrimination to protect anyone from being seen as privileged, inherently racist or an oppressor based on their demographic makeup.

Two other measures with similar language — SB 242 by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, and HB 57 by Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County — address discrimination on all academic levels, from kindergarten through college.

All of the measures share similarities with a model bill on the topic written by James Copland, the director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute. The conservative think tank employs Christopher Rufo, who spurred the movement nationally against critical race theory, often abbreviated as “CRT.” He also popularized the use of the term to include K-12 lessons on race as well as diversity training in the workplace.

Despite those assertions, critical race theory is a college-level topic — rarely if ever explored in K-12 classrooms — based on the idea that racism is embedded in American legal systems and policies. Scholars began to explore the subject as an explanation for why racism and discrimination persisted after the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

In announcing his Stop W.O.K.E. Act, DeSantis described critical race theory as “state-sanctioned racism,” adding: “We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other.”

Those familiar with the field say the governor and others are misrepresenting critical race theory, and they worry about the damage already done to race scholarship.

After the University of Florida funded a number of race-related research projects following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, the school commissioned a study on the climate for race scholars.

Katheryn Russell-Brown
Katheryn Russell-Brown [ University of Florida ]

Russell-Brown, the law professor, and UF professor Ryan Morini gathered input from 39 scholars and found that many did not feel supported in their research, and that the university had put up “roadblocks to faculty scholarship and courses on race.” The study concluded that faculty “must consistently evaluate whether their teaching and scholarship run afoul of CRT legislation. Ultimately, UF race scholars must engage in an existential inquiry: What are the values and costs of studying and teaching about race and racism and are they worth the risk?”

The study also noted that UF had lost some of the nation’s most prominent scholars on race, and expressed concerns about the university’s ability to retain other faculty specializing in the subject.

In an interview, Russell-Brown said UF faculty have found the state’s climate “demoralizing and destablizing.”

It’s a concern shared by others across the state.

While Cox, the UCF professor, feels his university is an open-minded place, he said the legislation would add unnecessary complication for those who want to study race.

“The governor and everyone knows critical race theory is not being taught in K-12,” said Cox, who said he first encountered the concept in graduate school. “That — in and of itself a racist thing — is completely untrue, and if you did even a cursory glance you’d see that’s the case. It’s very clear to me that the people fighting against CRT have no idea what it is.”

David Ponton
David Ponton [ University of South Florida ]

David Ponton, a professor in the Africana Studies department at the University of South Florida, said critical race theory is a tool that started with legal studies to examine the law through a particular lens.

“The law is not neutral,” he said. “It’s political and ideological. We are not all equal under the law.”

Ponton said while he feels supported by his college, he’s not sure USF leadership will speak against threats to race scholars because of fears it might affect state funding.

The bills, he said, would not only make scholarship difficult, but stymie progress.

For example, academics wouldn’t be able to explain or examine the impacts of inequality or why those who live in East Tampa may have a different experience than those who live in South Tampa, Ponton said.

“Violence, crime, poverty, hunger, pollution ― all of the things that hurt all of us — are rooted in inequality and the very thing the state doesn’t want us to talk about,” he said.

The USF faculty senate passed a resolution in November to “Support and Protect Faculty and Instructors with Expertise in Critical Race Theory, Blackness, Anti-Blackness, Anti-Racism, Race, Gender, Sexuality and Other Forms of Difference,” and called on USF administrators to take a stronger stance in calling out threats to scholarship.

The resolution called attention to HB 57 and SB 242 and mentioned last year’s “intellectual diversity” law, which grew out of lawmakers’ concerns that conservative ideas were not welcome on college campuses and that students were being indoctrinated.

Those measures together, it said, are likely to make incoming students from Florida public schools “unreceptive to pedagogical perspectives attentive to racial inequities and injustices in the history, society, and culture of the United States, inhibiting the free and open expression of ideas required for a flourishing intellectual atmosphere, (and) hindering the educational mission of USF to foster critical thinking.”

The resolution also said the bills could lead to creating “an uncomfortable and hostile environment for marginalized students.”

And while it praised USF for adopting initiatives such as requiring courses on anti-Blackness and hiring more scholars of color, it said faculty are often targeted for harassment.

“The very expertise for which we were hired makes us vulnerable,” the resolution said. “We require support from the University of South Florida to do our jobs.”

Faculty senate president Tim Boaz said interim USF president Rhea Law has expressed support for faculty, but hopes to see those sentiments voiced publicly too.

If nothing else, all the attention has piqued interest in critical race theory, said Cox, the UCF professor.

The idea that students are being indoctrinated, he said, is comical to any college teacher.

“DeSantis has said he wants people to become critical thinkers,” Cox said. “It’s important students be exposed to different ideas. That’s the whole point of college. … But once you’re done with the course, you go on with your own life.”

Emily Mahoney contributed to this report.