What the Hell is Going on in Florida? Part One.
Over the past few months, Florida’s Republican legislature and governor have combined to create “culture war” legislation aimed at rallying their base for next year’s mid-term elections. Florida is not alone in doing this; many “red” states have enacted or are considering enacting similar pieces of legislation. As a sociologist, I follow a lot of national discussions and debates, but I don’t feel the need to comment on them all. However, I’ve had 4 or 5 people reach out to me and ask my thoughts on these, so I figured I’d say something about them, over three separate posts. Part One will discuss Critical Race Theory (CRT), Part Two will discuss the banning of transgender girls from state high school sporting teams and Part Three will discuss what Republicans call socialist indoctrination in higher education.
Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory.
I should probably start by discussing what CRT is and what it is not. Critical Race Theory is an analytical lens, popularized in academic circles by law professors, that views America and its history in structural and institutional terms. The roots of the perspective can be traced back for decades, in the work of Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Stokley Carmichael. The current CRT iteration probably started in the 1980s when law professors began examining the role of institutional racism in our past and present legal structure.
It’s hard to put an entire field of thought into one or two sentences, but I’ll give it a shot anyway, and say the Critical Race Theory approach maintains that 1) America has focused on race since its inception, to the benefit of whites and the detriment of people of color, and 2) this reality is not simply a relic of the past, but can in fact still be found to this day in our political, economic, and cultural experiences. While I fail to see the controversy in those two points, others find them offensive and unpatriotic.
Having briefly (and probably inadequately) explained what CRT is, the question of what it is NOT is evident: everything else that has been said about it! Listening to the national dialogue, anything that makes white people feel uncomfortable, in a discussion of race, has been labeled CRT. This includes any discussion of ‘white privilege’ (or ‘white advantage’, as my colleague David Jaffee prefers), ‘systemic racism’, ‘institutional racism’, etc… Anything at all to do with race has been conflated with CRT.
Critical Race Theory has even been called a Marxist doctrine by former President Trump, among others, and at this point I need to pause and chuckle. **Chuckle chuckle, snicker snicker**. As a sociologist influenced heavily by the writings of Karl Marx, C. Wright Mills and Erik Olin Wright, I can tell you this: if you believe nothing else I write on this blog, take my word for it that CRT is not Marxist. There might be some overarching concern for who benefits economically from racism in CRT, but Marx himself had little to say about race. Calling it Marxist is simply a scare tactic used by the right to devalue and debase anything that challenges their hegemony.
Opponents of Critical Race Theory have also said that talking about race and racism just makes us more divided as a society. Florida governor Ron DeSantis has said “it’s unpatriotic and tells whites they are racist just by being whites”. But CRT is a theory about institutions and systems in society, not individual people. And when whites say “talking about racism just makes us more divided”, that translates to “as a white person I have benefitted from my privileged position in this society, a position I did nothing to earn, and I would prefer not to be called out on this, thank you very much”. People of color know this division very well, but their concerns and experiences have never influenced policies like the Florida Department of Education just enacted…
On Thursday, June 10th, right here in Jacksonville on the campus of my college, the Florida Board of Education approved an amendment banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory in Florida schools K-12. At the hearing, governor DeSantis said CRT “…would teach kids that the country is rotten and that our institutions are illegitimate- and that is not worth any taxpayer dollars”. A good number of states are considering similar legislation and amendments and some have already enacted such.
My concerns with this are legion, so I’ll just point out one or two. First, it continues a trend of politicians deciding what can and cannot be taught in public schools. The idea of teaching American history in a way that disallows discussions of the role of race is essentially an ahistorical, fantasy-based approach. Fine for creative writing classes, but not history class. The main tenant of history classes is to create the ability to think critically about where we have been and where we might be heading in the future. To narrowly limit our focus to the glory of the white experience at the neglect of the underside of our history is a disservice to students.
Next, the rule is superfluous, since no public schools in the state actually teach Critical Race Theory. Not a one. The state board of education has literally told teachers they can’t do something that they already do not do.
Finally, there is the issue of CRT perhaps being the “truth”!? As I mentioned above, there is nothing terribly controversial about the idea that this country was built on ideals that only applied to white (usually land-owning) men and not women and people of color. Nor should it raise eyebrows to point out that slave labor, and after slavery, convict-leased labor, helped build much of the material wealth that accrued to these white (usually land-owning) men. Slavery, convict leasing, Jim Crow segregation, urban ghettos, and the current carceral apparatus have provided for the continuous confinement and exploitation of people of color. To ignore this (again, clearly evident) history because it offends some whites, elides the lived experiences of a multitude of folks who in fact define our nations history.
Shame on Floridians for voting such racially blind politicians into office- let’s vote them out!
Photo Credit: 1941 - ex-slave in her house near Greensboro, Alabama, courtesy of The New York Public Library