Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday held a rowdy event, billed as a news conference, to ramp up the volume on his fight against the influence of critical race theory in schools and businesses across Florida.
At a lectern displaying a “Stop Woke Act” sign, the Republican governor seeking reelection in 2022 told the heavily Republican Sumter County crowd that he will push legislation next year that will protect kids and workers against “very pernicious ideologies,” and he enlisted Christopher Rufo, who spurred the national conservative movement against the theory, to fire up the crowd.
“In Florida, we are taking a stand against the state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory,” DeSantis told attendees, who cheered and waved signs with the letters “CRT” crossed out. “We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other.”
While the governor’s proposal drew praise in the room, critics who were watching the event unfold called the proposal a politically motivated effort that aims to “whitewash history” to avoid uncomfortable subjects about race.
“It was not all peaches and cream,” said Senate Education Vice Chair Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat. “Republicans know that we are stepping into very dangerous territory when you start messing with Black history and literally moving goalposts when it comes to what actually happened.”
The governor’s promotion of his proposal is an escalation of his attacks on a 1980s legal concept that holds that racial disparities are systemic in the United States, not just a collection of individual prejudices.
In June, DeSantis started attacking the concept as it drew the ire of conservatives across the country. Weeks later, at the request of the governor, the State Board of Education barred lessons in public schools that dealt with the concept.
Cultural “woke” movement a target, too
Now, the governor wants to expand the reach of the culture war issue by targeting a “whole cottage industry” of consultants who he says are paid to inject critical race theory into classroom lessons and workplace training.
He argued the problem is clear because it is happening in schools in other parts of the country, like Pennsylvania, Arizona, Missouri, California and the state of Washington, and pointed to Google, Bank of America and Verizon as corporations that have embraced “woke corporate training.”
DeSantis said Florida will not allow corporations to offer training that encourages participants to be “woke at work” or that tells workers that “America is fundamentally racist.”
In recent months, the corporations called out by DeSantis at the press conference have come under the ire of conservatives for offering “equity” training in the workplace.
“You know, I think about it as if you’re in a company and someone’s telling dirty jokes or doing this, that could be considered a hostile work environment,” he said. “Well, how is it not a hostile work environment to be attacking people based on their race or telling them that they’re privileged or that they’re part of an oppressive system when all they’re doing is showing up to work and trying to earn a living?”
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In recent months, DeSantis has aggressively gone after large corporations who refused to endorse his COVID-19 policies. At a Florida Chamber of Commerce event in October, he blasted what he called “the rise of corporate wokeness” and warned that if companies criticized his policies he may criticize theirs back.
Because DeSantis has not filed legislation on the matter yet, it is unclear exactly what kind of training restrictions he is proposing for private employers.
For now, it appears the proposal is focused on diversity and equity training.
A lack of Florida examples
The governor did not highlight Florida-specific examples at the press conference, but when asked for state-specific issues, his office shared a link to a March news story about a Duval County arts school that hired a diversity consultant to host two meetings about cultural issues, one for students of color and one for white students.
The idea, according to the news report, angered some parents, and the school principal explained in an email that the meetings were planned separately to “help address concerns and ensure all voices are heard.” After facing pushback, the principal said they were “revisiting our approach with our consultants” and canceled the event, according to the news report.
The governor’s office did not provide any examples in Florida’s higher education system. However, at least one professor at the University of Florida has accused university officials of asking faculty members to not use the words “critical” and “race” in curriculum to avoid political backlash and potential budget cuts.
UF has declined to comment on the allegations, which are part of a growing number of concerns over academic freedom at the university that have surface in recent months.
DeSantis framed the issue as one that is insidious.
“Just understand, when you hear ‘equity’ used, that is just an ability for people to smuggle in their ideology because we don’t need to have those terms,” DeSantis said when talking about diversity consultants in general.
The governor says his proposed legislation would give parents a legal avenue to sue — and collect attorney’s fees — if they think a school district is teaching kids about critical race theory.
“Honestly, the parents know best of what’s going on and they’re in the best position,” DeSantis said. “And here is the thing, a lot of time, these people will fear lawsuits more than a fine from the state Department of Education.”
He argued the legal avenue is needed because school districts don’t always follow state law, a gripe that stems from the school mask mandate issue over the summer when several school districts imposed strict mask mandates with medical opt-outs.
DeSantis, who invoked the state’s Parents’ Bill of Rights to issue a blanket ban on school mask mandates, directed the state Department of Education to levy fines against school board members and the move triggered a series of lawsuits.
After months of legal wrangling, the issue became moot when state lawmakers, at the direction of the governor, returned to Tallahassee for a special session that strengthened the Parents’ Bill of Rights.
Legislation still in the works
Taryn Fenske, the governor’s communications director, said the governor’s office is still working to introduce the legislation in the House and Senate for the legislative session that starts Jan. 11.
Two prominent Republican lawmakers, Rep. Randy Fine and Senate Education Committee Chairman Joe Gruters, have already filed bills that mirror some of the governor’s proposals, but it appears those bills will not be the vehicle for the governor.
The bills pushed by Fine and Gruters, for instance, would bar all state institutions from teaching “divisive concepts about race and gender.”
It would also target the teaching of any subject that makes an individual feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of physiological distress on account of his or her race or sex” or any other form of “race or sex scapegoating or race or sex stereotyping.”
Fine said in an interview earlier this month that his bill is a copy-paste version of a bill that became law in the state of Iowa this summer.
“Why reinvent the wheel, right?” Fine said. “This is not language that I invented from scratch.”