Dear Gov. Ron DeSantis,
You hit a new low last week — and that’s saying something. When you signed legislation defunding diversity, equity and inclusion programs in the state’s public colleges and universities, you set Florida on a dangerous and narrow-minded course for generations.
Sure, your culture-war move may help your expected bid for the Republican presidential nomination, but the price is steep. It comes at the expense of free speech, fairness and truth.
Within a few months, I fear we could see professors become so wary of discussing race and gender that students wind up with a distorted and sanitized picture of our collective past.
Already, the NAACP has issued a travel advisory for the state because of your “aggressive attempts to erase Black history” and restrict diversity, equity and inclusion in Florida schools.
The civil rights group’s action is understandable. You’ve had Black history in your crosshairs for some time now, including your ban on an AP course in African American studies.
The NAACP is not alone in taking such a step. Even before you signed this new law, advocacy group Equality Florida urged caution in part because of the passage of laws hostile to the LGBTQ+ community.
What will be your next target, Governor? Diversity, equity and inclusion programs in business? Based on your political squabble with Disney, it doesn’t take much imagineering to picture the long arm of your administration reaching into the private workspace.
Like others outside your circle of censors in Tallahassee, I’m particularly concerned about how this law takes aim at the all-important topics of systemic racism, sexism and oppression. It undercuts the ability of professors to shine a light on the truth of our history.
Will the classroom be a place where the ugly and uncomfortable truths of our country’s past are told and discussed? Or will the law’s restrictions lead to nothing more than a whitewashed version of events?
Governor, my own history is one that might be censored in the classroom. I witnessed the racial injustices of the 1950s as a white child of sharecropper parents in the rural South.
As a youngster in North Carolina, I knew that some relatives were members of the Ku Klux Klan. They boasted about how much they hated Black people, though that was hardly the word they used to describe our neighbors.
When my family moved to Orlando, racism didn’t just go away. I saw the practice of segregation every time I did something as commonplace as going to the movies. While I could sit wherever I wanted, Black children were only allowed in the balcony.
Then there were my experiences in the classroom before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and integration. At my high school, there were no Black students. My classmates and I would only see Black students when band members from the segregated Jones High School marched in Orlando’s Christmas parade.
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My world was so limited that I didn’t meet and truly befriend a Black person until 1966 when I volunteered for the Marines. That’s when I met James Johnson. James and I remained close throughout the Vietnam War and afterward until he died last year.
I’m so grateful to James, for his friendship and for what he taught me about race and the intentionally shameful ways in which Black people were treated — by people who looked like me and by the police powers of the state itself.
Governor, this is my life. These experiences shaped my beliefs in diversity, equity and inclusion — as a Marine, a former member of the Florida Legislature and a lifelong advocate for racial justice.
I believe in diversity. I’ve grown through diversity. I’m not afraid of diversity.
As poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou rightly said, “in diversity, there is beauty, and there is strength.”
That’s why it troubles me deeply to think that stories like mine, like James’ — about racism, systemic racism — might go untold. What is the message we’re sending when we choose to look away?
We’re saying truth doesn’t really matter. And when truth doesn’t really matter, Governor, we all lose.
Dick Batchelor is an Orlando business consultant, former Florida legislator, past board chair of the Central Florida Urban League and recipient of Orlando Business Journal’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion Lifetime Achievement Award. He is a Democrat.