Ron DeSantis and the Second Coming of Segregation
Tiny Hillsdale College, a liberal arts school in Michigan, may not be a household name to many, but even fewer may know that its mission has become the blueprint for the attacks by far-right politicians on any anti-racism work and anything “multicultural” that is taking place in schools and politics all around the country.
Within Hillsdale’s mission is included this nugget which has excited and motivated far-right conservatives and white Christian Nationalists across the country:
“The College values the merit of each unique individual, rather than succumbing to the dehumanizing, discriminatory trend of so-called “social justice” and “multicultural diversity,” which judges individuals not as individuals, but as members of a group and which pits one group against other competing groups in divisive power struggles.” (1)
Hillsdale also recently gained some notoriety from its contribution to the so-called “1776 Project” which was deemed a “patriotic” version of American history and was a direct response to Nicole Hannah Jones and her New York Times endeavor, the 1619 Project. Since its release, the 1776 Project has been widely seen as an ahistorical version of American history and has been widely dismissed by historians who saw it for what it was… a romanticized and whitewashed version of American history – heavy on propaganda, and light on scholarly research – “a hack job” full of “outright lies.” (2) It was yet another attempt to portray the United States as a divinely ordained city on a hill, favored among all nations by their God. And, after taking a glance at Hillsdale’s interesting views on Critical Race Theory (CRT), you can see a direct line as to how this white Christian nationalist ideology has infiltrated a major political party in the United States. (3)
In other words, it was a return to how history was taught prior to the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s part and parcel of the MAGA movement’s aim to “Make America Great Again,” and the perfect launching pad for the anti-wokeness efforts we see today in states from the old Jim Crow South. In this version of history, there is no such thing as systemic oppression rooted in identity, and any failure to move forward falls on the individual.
It was also the perfect foundation for the Trump administration to dive headfirst into the culture wars and to initiate “anti-wokeness” efforts across the country by basically attacking any teaching of America’s racial history as a form of grievance politics. This tactic is not new. It is the same approach used during Jim Crow to stoke white fears with theories of a “great replacement” of white people by Black and Brown folks, resulting in the degradation of American society. These messages have appealed to a large segment of white Americans for generations.
At the forefront of these efforts in 2023 is the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who has aggressively attacked any aspect of the teaching of American history that does not fit into this narrative. Anything remotely resembling any criticism of the United States and its history is deemed too controversial, harmful to white kids, and wokeness. Coincidently – or not – anything remotely resembling opposition to DeSantis’ conservative and authoritarian policies is also now deemed “woke.”
“Florida is where woke goes to die,” DeSantis proudly proclaimed. (4) Of course, the term “woke” has now been used to address anything that far-right conservatives take issue with. Curiously, when talking about “wokeness,” you may notice that there are often very few details or specific examples given as to how, when, and where these supposedly harmful experiences are taking place. The vagueness of the language being used by DeSantis and others speaks volumes.
For instance, Ryan Newman, who was representing DeSantis in the Andrew Warren case in Florida, was asked by one of Warren’s attorneys to define “woke.” His response was “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” (5) In other words, by going after wokeness, DeSantis is demonstrating that he is so opposed to the belief that there are systemic injustices in American society that he is unwilling to entertain evidence to the contrary. And, to DeSantis, addressing these “nonexistent” injustices is seen as “divisive.” DeSantis’ lawyer went on to confirm that DeSantis doesn’t believe there are systemic injustices in the country. (6)
Not surprisingly, these efforts have been embraced by a political base that is eager to delve into accusations of white replacement, and other white supremacist talking points that seem to be all the rage in far right political circles these days. From a political operations perspective, DeSantis is paying very close attention to recent polling that has shown that Republicans in overwhelming numbers want the party and its leaders to focus more on the culture wars. (7)
Some of the efforts can also be seen as using projection as a political weapon. Nowadays, the politics of projection have folks believing that being against racism is now racist. Being against sexism is now sexist. And, standing up to hate groups is now deemed hateful and intolerant.
What’s fascinating about these developments is that it almost exactly mirrors the patterns we saw in the pre-civil rights, Jim Crow era of the American South. The states of the old confederacy engaged in similar politics as they segregated schools, public accommodations, businesses, neighborhoods, etc.
Nowadays, we see a revisiting of these practices with the segregation of what we learn in the classroom, the segregation of the books we read, the segregation of the news we are fed. The recent revelations in the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News demonstrate how clearly intentional and tactical and destructive the segregation of news has been. (8) (9) Fox leadership has even gone so far in segregating its new coverage that they are allegedly not allowing one of their own reporters to cover the Dominion lawsuit that involves their own company. (10)
So while segregation may look a little bit different these days than it did in 1955, the impact seems to be having a similar effect. The demonization of multiculturalism, the claim that Critical Race Theory is indoctrinating children, and that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is discriminatory and values a person’s race over their qualifications continues to feed a narrative to harmful effect. DeSantis has also referred to DEI as “trendy ideology” (notice the same wording used in the Hillsdale mission statement). (11) (12)
DeSantis as a case study in CRT
and the impact of Hate
In an ironic twist, DeSantis, Glenn Youngkin, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and other leaders in the former Jim Crow South, continue to move forward using the legal system to attack curriculum that doesn’t fit their political narrative. They are living examples, in real time, of using the law and their systemic positions of power to prohibit or limit the free exchange of ideas in classrooms, thereby segregating, disenfranchising, and limiting access and opportunity to individuals and communities. They continue to use the law to influence and deny access to advanced placement courses for students within their states. These decisions to use the law to discriminate and prohibit equal opportunity to the advantage of some over others – even if you claim that it wasn’t intentional – is quite literally what critical race theory attempts to explain. (13)
Noted scholar of Kimberlé Crenshaw has explained how the arguments calling CRT “cult indoctrination” as conservative scholar Christopher Rufo has done, or “state sanctioned racism” as DeSantis has expressed, (14) is using the same rhetoric and approach we’ve have seen before from white supremacist groups and segregationists to suggest that acknowledging racism itself is, in and of itself, racist against white people.
“The rhetoric allows for racial equity laws, demands and movements to be framed as aggression and discrimination against white people.” (15)
We’ve also seen rhetoric like this from white supremacist groups like Project Europa who have claimed that “diversity = white genocide,” “diversity means chasing down the last white person,” and “anti-racist is code for anti-white.” As the Anti-Defamation League has noted “the phrase “Diversity = White Genocide” is a white supremacist slogan coined by disciples of Bob Whitaker, a former Republican congressional aide and Reagan administration appointee who later embraced white supremacy and began writing for neo-Nazi publications. Whitaker emphasized the tactic of adopting simple slogans and endlessly repeating them; his followers took him at his word, making up several slogans and promoting them constantly.” (16)
More recently, the slogan “It’s ok to be white” began making the rounds on college campuses and sought to foster similar feelings of grievance and resentment. (17)
This has had a powerful impact on the rise in hate groups we have seen across the country affecting the nature of life on college campuses, the dynamics of local school board meetings, and the political discourse of the far-right wing in this country. It is telling that this rhetoric and these political maneuvers over the past 8 years have emboldened white supremacists more than at any point since the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Indeed, on February 25, 2023, law enforcement was put on high alert in the country’s major cities as white supremacist groups – emboldened and mobilized – planned (at the end of Black History Month and during weekly Jewish Shabbat) a “National Day of Hate.” (18)
Where Do We Go From Here?
“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans…These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro, there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here, 1967.
Dr. King perfectly captured the challenges to ending systemic racism in 1967 and our challenges moving forward today. The current backlash against CRT and DEI education came as a response from those on the far right to the mass protests and calls for racial justice in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. In a crucial moment in American history when, for perhaps the first time, millions of American citizens seemed open to a critical analysis of American history and the systems under which we operate, there were pledges made to commit to antiracism, to equity, and to address systems that prohibited individuals and communities from reaching their full potential.
Then, as before, came the furious backlash. Suddenly pledges were abandoned in favor of the comfort of an “out of sight, out of mind” existence. Others became persuaded by the anti-wokeness rhetoric and began to be convinced that teachers, the US military, television shows, the media, etc. were all engaged in a sinister plot to indoctrinate kids and all Americans into “woke ideology.” It is not unlike that time in American history when, in the aftermath of a civil rights icon being assassinated, the children’s television program Sesame Street was seen as a threat to indoctrinate kids into embracing diversity and was banned in Mississippi. (19)
In other words, we are resegregating again, and we are repeating the past.
It seems clear that we are now, have always been, and will continue to be in a series of crucible moments. We will continue to see the perpetual tug of war between the America that was and the America that could be. We will remain engaged in an ongoing struggle to decide if we are to move forward as a country that sees itself as multiracial, multireligious, multiethnic, multicultural or sees itself as, first and foremost, a white Christian nationalist society.
I will address how to respond to these realities and how to sustain positive movement forward for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in your communities and in your organizations.
- Mission – Hillsdale College
- 1776 report: Historians attack Trump commission’s account of nation’s past as ‘outright lies’ – The Washington Post
- Critical Race Theory: What It Is and How to Fight It | Imprimis (hillsdale.edu)
- WATCH: ‘Florida is where woke goes to die’: DeSantis talks ‘anti-woke’ stance | CNN Politics
- What does ‘woke’ mean? Gov. DeSantis officials answer during Andrew Warren trial (fox13news.com)
- GOP Primary Voters Want Presidential Candidates to Embrace Culture War Issues, Poll Finds (yahoo.com)
- Fox News lawsuit: 5 revelations from Dominion court filing (thehill.com)
- Dominion has uncovered ‘smoking gun’ evidence in case against Fox News, legal experts say | CNN Business
- Fox News media analyst says network won’t let him cover Dominion lawsuit (msn.com)
- DeSantis cuts Florida campus diversity programs prioritized in 2020 (tallahassee.com)
- DeSantis to scrutinize diversity, equity and inclusion programs in higher education | WUSF Public Media
- What Is Critical Race Theory? A Brief History Explained – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
- Diversity = White Genocide | ADL
- It’s Okay To Be White | ADL
- White supremacists call for ‘Day of Hate’ – The Forward
- When Mississippi Banned ‘Sesame Street’ | Mental Floss