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Uncovering the effects of the 'Stop W.O.K.E' Act with Jonathan Cox: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with Jonathan Cox, a race scholar and assistant sociology at the University of Central Florida, about the effects of anti-CRT laws on his students and courses.

You’ve probably heard about what Florida governor Ron DeSantis is up to. One of the most controversial things he’s done is sign the Individual Freedom Act, also known as the “Stop W.O.K.E Act,” short for Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees. The law, among many things, prohibits teaching certain concepts related to race. Although there’s currently an injunction against the law, its implementation had far-reaching consequences for students and professors alike. Jonathan Cox is an assistant sociology professor at the University of Central Florida. He faced a tough decision last fall. Cox, who is the only Black professor in his department, could either teach two courses that would explore colorblind racism, “Race and Social Media” and “Race and Ethnicity,” or cancel his classes. He had to choose the latter option of cancelling some of his courses because of DeSantis’ law banning the teaching of critical race theory. Cox joins WITHpod to discuss the circumstances that led him to change the courses he taught last semester, the importance of inclusive spaces that encourage constructive debate, the effect of anti-CRT laws on his students and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Jonathan Cox: We want to be in a place where race doesn't matter. We want to be in a place where racism doesn't impact people's outcomes of their daily lives, right. The fact, unfortunately, is that we are not in that place yet. And in order to get there, you got to talk about it, right?

I challenge my students all the time, like, if you can tell me one problem, just one, that you can solve without talking about it, I’ll give you A in the class, you never have to do anything else again.

Nobody's ever been able to do it because it's impossible. You got to talk about it in order to solve it.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

You have probably heard about what Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been up to. Governor DeSantis is clearly angling or positioning himself to run for president in 2024, though he has not declared yet for that, but many people anticipate he will.

And in order to, you know, sort of bolster his bona fides for Republican primary voters, who are the constituency that he's most concerned about if he's going to unseat Donald Trump at the primary, he has engaged in a series of, at times, cruel, inhumane, gross stunts to create content for FOX News and to position himself as a champion of basically Trumpist ideology after Trump.

You could probably list some of those, the stunt in which a bunch of desperate migrants were lied to about where they were going, and an off-book operation that included a mysterious woman named Perla who (ph) was paid to recruit people with lies about where they were (ph) sent and then dropped off in an island off Massachusetts.

He had the police go out and arrest, at people's homes in a very kind of intimidating fashion, folks who had voted but who under Florida law weren't actually eligible to vote because Florida Republicans had kind of muddied the waters after voters there had passed felony re-enfranchisement.

And these people, who were shocked to find that they were being arrested, all had registered to vote and gotten the OK from registrars. So, of course, they thought it was legal to vote. But the point was to create the stunt, to create the image of him as a tough guy to pick the cultural war or fight to get on FOX News.

One of the most significant things he's done is sign this piece of legislation which is called the Stop WOKE Act, which was sort of all the rage in culture war circles, last year particularly, and is an attempt to basically use state power to really restrict and control the ideological content of what teachers at state schools, both university level and at other levels, and anyone interfacing with the state through like licensing requirements or running diversity, equity, inclusion, to strongly control what ideologies are acceptable to the state of Florida and what are not. And it gets quite specific.

Here's just an example of a concept that under Florida law, currently, you cannot teach. You cannot teach the following, that, "Such virtues as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race, color, sex, or national origin to oppress members of another race, color, sex, or national origin."

Now, you may or may not agree with that thesis that those concepts were created by one group as a means of exerting control over another. And again, that's even a, I think, simplistic, reductive account of how sophisticated thinkers and scholars think about the role of colorblindness, as we'll hear in just a moment.

But the notion that, like, that's beyond dispute, that you can't even teach that idea in Florida, under penalty of state sanction, is wildly offensive to the First Amendment, wildly offensive to free speech and free inquiry. And in fact, the law has been enjoined by a federal court. We'll see what happens.

But it also, you know, there are the stunt aspects of the stuff that DeSantis has done. Then there's, like, the human cost. And we saw the human cost in the interviews with the folks that were taken from a shelter in San Antonio and dropped off in an island in Massachusetts, with no contacts, nowhere to go, had no idea where they were; who felt betrayed and lost and upset, and some started to cry.

And you can see the video of individuals who had felony records, who thought they were allowed to vote, getting thrown into the back of a cop car in cuffs, plaintively asking, like, how is this possible? What did I do wrong?

And in the case of this law, there are tangible human consequences as well. And one of those consequences was reported in ProPublica earlier this month in a great piece by Daniel Golden that just highlighted one professor named Jonathan Cox, who is a sociologist at the University of Central Florida. He's the only Black member of his faculty in that department there, who teaches classes on race and social media, race and ethnicity, and readings on the myth of colorblind society, and how the fact that Jonathan Cox suddenly found himself with a dilemma, which is: should he teach the courses that he teaches every year, that the students enjoy, or would he run afoul of state law if he did?

And after reading this piece, I thought, I really want to hear from Jonathan Cox himself about what is going on in Florida, what it means to be a teacher trying to do good work on the ground, teach students under the thumb of this new law from Governor Ron DeSantis. So we have Jonathan on the program.

Jonathan Cox, welcome to the program.

Jonathan Cox: Thanks for having me.

Chris Hayes: So, Jonathan, tell me about how you came to be a sociologist.

Jonathan Cox: Sure. So I mean, it's really just a culmination of the various experiences that I've had throughout time, right. So I went to undergrad at a historically Black university, Hampton University. From there, went straight to Penn State University for grad school, which was a pretty big shift in terms of like demographics, where it was located, all that stuff, right. And so, I kind of just noticed the different experiences I was having, you know, on the two different campuses, I mean, between the students.

So through those experiences, I kind of started working in student affairs, right, that's what I went through to get my master’s in. And so, in working in student affairs, I did work with multicultural affairs, right. I really wanted to see if I could do something to help students of color on predominantly white campuses. So I really enjoyed that.

But then, you know, through my years in working in that field, I just kind of got even more interested in social issues more broadly, just understanding what was happening in society. And so, decided to pursue a degree in sociology so I could get more information about that and become a teacher, right, a professor, to be able to teach folks about some of these issues and do research on some of this, hopefully with the outcome of, you know, doing something positive for the world.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, that's interesting that it really did came (ph) from, like, tangible life experiences that sort of drove you in that direction. Where are you from originally?

Jonathan Cox: So I'm from Ohio, originally, Dayton, Ohio.

Chris Hayes: And what was your upbringing like in terms of the kind of world you were inhabiting, in terms of the school that you were in and the neighborhood? Was it an integrated neighborhood? Were you in a place where you were a distinct minority or a predominantly Black area?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. So Dayton was interesting when I was growing up. It was almost like a 50/50 split Black and white. And so, I lived really in the city limits, where I was at was one of the predominantly Black areas that existed.

But the high school that I went to was downtown and it actually was like about 50/50 Black and white again, but the white students were from more like the poorer sides of Dayton. They weren't like the wealthier white Daytonians, you might say.

That was interesting because they had very similar experiences in many ways to a lot of Black people that I knew. And so, we all got along really well. Obviously, there were issues, right, you're never not going to have them. But it was just very different from other places that I went to after leaving there.

Chris Hayes: That's really interesting. Can you say a little more about that? Because, you know, schools are so segregated in America --

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: And even schools that are not segregated, often the lived reality of those schools, they could be very intensely segregated. So I'm just curious about that high school experience because it sounds like that was pretty formative.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah, it definitely was. Right. It was interesting because I went back for a high school reunion, you know, a couple years ago. I was chatting with some of my friends from high school, some of my white friends, about how the experiences I've had elsewhere just did not compare at all, right.

And so, I think because of the socioeconomic similarities, right, there was that kind of that closeness. Also, as I said (ph), we went to school in the city, right, we interacted a lot more. There were probably a lot more of us just kind of in the same spaces.

So in those ways, we kind of got past a lot of the segregation that we do see happening around the country, right, because we were in each other’s faces, in each other’s places all the time, and we had very, very similar experiences. And so, I think that just kind of made it a different thing than you would see in a lot of other places where folks don't get to interact across difference.

Chris Hayes: You know, it's interesting because it's always struck me when I've done reporting in sort of like the big auto areas of the country, Dayton, Ohio is one of them. You know, one of the amazing things that I think the UAW did, right, was it did, it took a while and obviously there were huge racial issues within the UAW, but it did produce like this integrated multiracial working class --

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- in those places, those towns that really are like big auto towns, Dayton being one of them. That's really palpable when you go to them. You know, if you go to a union hall or UAW event, it's really striking how integrated those spaces are.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. Absolutely right. You're talking about how Dayton is, right. I've noticed that when I've gone to other cities that, you know, you could tell maybe came out of like the industrial spaces, et cetera, right.

So some of the other cities that I've been in where people were mixing a lot more, it just creates this very different environment. And I mean, I kind of grew up assuming that that's how it was everywhere. It wasn't until I left for college and, you know, spread my wings a little bit that I saw that, oh, wait, other people did not have experiences like me, at all.

Chris Hayes: Well, this is an interesting trajectory because you go from, like a fairly rare, like fairly integrated space in American life, which are really, they're not that common.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: They're often the exception not the rule, particularly at (ph) school level. Then you go to a historically Black college, and what was that like?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. It was very different, right. And so, I mean, I think there was a couple of things that were happening. One, it was way outside of Dayton. And so, I mean, part of Dayton was just that it was a lot more behind, I think, in some, you know, contemporary aspects, you know, than some other cities that I've been to.

And two, that (ph) was the first time I actually saw lots of different types of Black people. I also realized that I had a very narrow understanding of what it meant to be Black, who was Black, until I went there and saw people who look very different, obviously, but also were from very different places, from the Caribbean, other parts of the world, from other parts of the country, some people who had experiences that I would have previously assumed were more like the rich white people that were in Dayton that I knew existed there. And so, I kind of understood the depth of blackness a lot more and I got a really good appreciation for what that was like.

Chris Hayes: That's interesting. Like, the diversity and the depth of blackness --

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- in America.

Jonathan Cox: Absolutely. Yeah. It was incredible to me, right. I just hadn't known (ph) that. I mean, think political too, right, there were a lot of people. That's the first time I had met conservative Black people, right. I kind of assumed that all Black people (ph) voted Democrat and were all liberals. And that was just not the case, right. So it was really, really cool to be able to see that.

Chris Hayes: So the Penn State experience, I mean, I know, college can be a cultural shock for lots of people.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And it's kind of a culture shock for me, even though I was coming from New York and from kind of like a middle-class New York City background. White kid from the outer boroughs, like, went to this public high school that was a very, like, you know, it was like a magnet school. And so, I'd been around, like, kids with a certain amount of money. I'd been around affluence. But it was still crazy, like the Ivy League still kind of blew my mind --

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- Like, I was like, oh, right, I guess we got a sailing team here. Like --


-- that's a whole different sort of situation. And I think a lot of people feel different kinds of culture shock. But a lot of the Black friends and people that I've talked to, it's pretty distinct, that experience of a place like Penn State.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah, it was, right. And so, again, you know, I grew up with white people. So it wasn't like I was, like, oh, my God, there are white folks. I've never seen them before. Right? So that wasn't the shock.

The shock was that I was meeting, one, there were so many white people, right. It was just a hugely predominantly white campus.

And then, two, where they were from really boggled my mind. I remember there was a student that I met who said that, they were like 23 or 24, I think, they said that I was the first Black person that they had ever spoken to in their entire life up until that point.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Jonathan Cox: And so, there was just a different type of student there, much more isolated, way more segregated from, you know, different parts of Pennsylvania. And so, that was more so the shock for me was like, oh, wow, this is even another experience that I didn't know existed out there.

Chris Hayes: What's really interesting to me is what you're describing and, you know, I think we'll talk about is, there is something radical, revolutionary and amazing about the way that college can open people's minds. I mean, and particularly --

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- large public schools --

Jonathan Cox: Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: -- where people are coming from, you know, they're coming from the background (ph) they're coming, and they're coming from all across the state, and then they're in the same place. And you know, they've never talked to a Black person, or, you know, they've never experienced life outside their town or their neighborhood.

And all of a sudden, they're in this place. And there is something, there's a potential there for the opening of minds and for people to change their mind on things or to reconsider things, that is really powerful, and I think is sort of the subtext in some ways of the story we'll get into about what's happening in the state of Florida, where you are.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah, absolutely right. That's one of the things that I've loved about college and part of why I decided I wanted to work with college students, right. My undergrad was actually in K-12 education. So I was able to teach K-12 classes, and I decided that's not for me. I like college students a lot better. I can have, you know, different types of conversations.

And I like the fact that so many people from different places are coming together and you get to engage with ideas that you've never experienced or heard before. You get to see people from different places. It can be an incredible experience.

Chris Hayes: Where did you do your graduate work in sociology?

Jonathan Cox: So I did it at the University of Maryland, College Park, outside of D.C.

Chris Hayes: OK. What was your dissertation? What was your sort of area of focus?

Jonathan Cox: So racism more broadly, I actually looked at colorblind racism and colorblind ideology, and just how millennials and younger adults were understanding themselves, their racial identities and the world in terms of: is it colorblind or is it not? Or where we at in that space in terms of that, you know, kind of the idea of post-raciality? I wanted to understand that a lot more.

Chris Hayes: And what were your findings on this? I mean, obviously, this notion of colorblind is central to the whole debate that's happening right now. And in some ways --

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- the legal regime that you now toil under at the University of Central Florida, in Florida, so it couldn't be more apt.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. So it was interesting, right, because I know there's a lot of work that had been done before on some of that stuff. And so, what I did was I tried to ask and talk to more students of color, in particular, just to really see what they were thinking. And what I found is that, you know, by and large, a lot of white millennials were still using colorblindness in the ways that, you know, previous research has really outlined.

But students of color, they were using it, but kind of in these very contradictory ways, right. And so they would use it sometimes to describe things that were happening. So they might say, like, oh, you know, segregation is natural, right. People just want to live around others that are like them.

But then at the same time, they would also talk very clearly about systemic racism and how there are policies in place and structures that prevent people of color from being able to get ahead or to get as much as whites, right.

And so, like, they had this kind of dichotomy of beliefs, where it wasn't like a wholesale belief in colorblindness, but you could tell that they were clearly shaped by it in some of the similar ways as some of their white peers.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Well, talk a little bit about the discourse of colorblindness. Like, it's so persistent, right? And obviously, the iconic invocation is the MLK "I Have a Dream" --

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- speech, not the color of their skin, but the content of their character.

I don't know if that's the origin of the ideological construct of colorblindness. But the notion is, you know, people say I don't see color. That, like, yes, racism is bad, but it's bad because it makes individuation between people based on contingent factors. And the way to repair that is to just not see race, not account for race, not to think about race. So anything that has to do with race on (ph) affirmative action; or diversity, equity, inclusion; all that’s bad because it's a violation of the colorblind ethos.

Like, how does that ethos grow up? Where does it come from? How does it get developed?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. You actually hit the nail on the head with that one, right.

So it did grow out of the speech from Dr. King, right, that idea that he put forward. But they've kind of bastardized it, right. Like, they used it and turned it on its head in a way that Dr. King clearly did not mean, right. He was not suggesting that we never look at color. He was saying that we actually should be looking at that so we can understand what's happening.

And so, the idea of colorblindness is really that now, you know, post-civil rights, we're in this era where race doesn't matter that much for people's outcomes, right. It's not a significant factor in how far people get ahead, how much money they're going to earn, where they can live, what schools they can go to, all of that, right. It's really something that we're just supposed to talk about as a background factor. Like, hey, it's cool, you like to eat this type of food because you're this race or you're from here originally. That's great. But we don't want to talk about anything more deep than that, right.

And so colorblindness effectively had just kind of pushed racism to more of a background feature. And so, now we see it as more of, like, instead of it being really overt like it was pre-civil rights, where people would just say things out loud and kind of be, you know, here it is right in your face, now it's much more difficult. It's much more subtle, right. It's this kind of background thing where it's harder to point it out, even when it's happening.

And so that really just allows the structures to continue, right, the systemic racism that exists to perpetuate, so that, really, what we see is that if we can give everybody like a pill, right, like a Matrix-style pill and say (ph), if you take this pill, you will get rid of every racist thought in your body. That's not going to change much because it's baked into the structures and systems, right. We'll still see that perpetuating.

And so that's what people who study colorblindness are looking at is, like, how this stuff still perpetuates itself, even without the individualistic idea of people being racist themselves.

Chris Hayes: It's interesting, too, because I think obviously there's something insidious on it, and I think intentionally so, right? It's constructed in a way to defend the incumbent interests of --

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- white people who have, you know, disproportionate power and wealth in American society. But it's a plausible theory, and it's rhetorically appealing. Like, you know --

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- it's almost tautological. Like, when John Roberts in the Shelby County decision that strikes down, you know, guts a big part of the Voting Rights Act, says, you know, the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

Like, it has this kind of like, well, duh, obviously this is what we want, sort of appeal to it as rhetoric. It has a powerful draw, even what you were saying before about students of color millennial, African American, or Latino, or Asian feeling the draw of it as well.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah, absolutely right. And that's really one of the things that makes it so difficult to get rid of, and to talk about, right, is because it's a very laudable idea, right. We want to be in a place where race doesn't matter. We want to be in a place where racism doesn't impact people's outcomes of their daily lives, right. The fact, unfortunately, is that we are not in that place yet. And in order to get there, you got to talk about it, right.

I challenge my students all the time. Like, if you can tell me one problem, just one, that you can solve without talking about it, I'll give you an A in the class, you never have to do anything else again.

Nobody's ever been able to do it because it's impossible. You got to talk about it in order to solve it.

Chris Hayes: It also calls to mind, you know, there's this this famous and off-quoted line from a French novelist, Anatole France, who, you know, he says, the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal loaves of bread.

Which is, you know, a great summation of a critique of a much earlier version, not having to do with race, but along, like, lines of class and wealth, right. Well, the law is equal. No one, whether you're rich or poor, you can't sleep under a bridge, right.

And in that line, what's so great about that line is we intuitively understand, like, right, but it's going to only affect poor people.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: There's obviously a lot of critiques of colorblindness along those lines. And a lot of it does have to do, if you go back to the history, of the development of what we now call critical race theory, right?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah, absolutely right. That's exactly what I was thinking about when you were just talking, is that the unfortunate fact is that we see systemic racism being built into laws, right.

The way in which laws have been written and have been carried out throughout the United States history is that they have racism embedded within them, right. They disproportionately impact some people and not others. And we've never seen a law that disproportionately negatively impacts white Americans in the same way that it would some other group or all other groups.

Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.


Chris Hayes: How do you explain this notion of, sort of, the racialized structural inequities in, say, American law, in American finance, in American urban planning, in all sorts of areas of American life, that is not like explicitly clan racist, although sometimes it is. Like, if you go back and look at the archives, like, people writing about where they put the highways, they say --

Jonathan Cox: Right.

Chris Hayes: -- pretty clannish stuff sometimes.

Jonathan Cox: Here, not there. Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, here, not there. Right. But in a lot of cases, it isn't necessarily, and yet, it still has this effect. And that is really the radical concept that's at the core of the whole fight right now as far as I can tell, right. Like, how can it be the case of that (ph)?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. So I mean, again, that's where, you know, critical race theory really comes into play. It's like a tool that we can use. It just helps us to understand how race and racism interplay with various aspects of society, right.

And so it talks about, you know, how that (ph) laws are written in ways where, if we're seeing progress, for instance, right, so if we say we're going to do something that does have a benefit, a positive benefit for marginalized groups, typically that doesn't happen unless there's some type of interest convergence with wealthier white Americans, right. Like, we'll see that kind of happening.

And so it's really interesting then to look at how these things are baked into laws and disproportionately impact certain people over others. It can be really hard to explain. But, I mean, the good thing is that we do have a lot of data throughout decades at this point, right, that showcase how there are disproportionate impacts. And the only things that it really comes back to are the ways in which the laws are written and upheld.

Chris Hayes: So how did you end up, you're a professor in the sociology department at the University of Central Florida, right?

Jonathan Cox: Yes. That's correct.

Chris Hayes: And how long have you been there?

Jonathan Cox: This is my sixth year.

Chris Hayes: And you do not have tenure yet?

Jonathan Cox: No, I do not have tenure yet. I'll be, supposed to be, submitting soon. So, fingers crossed that everything goes well with that, and I get tenure.

Chris Hayes: Tell me a little bit about, is this your first gig post grad school?

Jonathan Cox: Yes. So this is my first job as a full-time faculty member. I did work --

Chris Hayes: Correct.

Jonathan Cox: -- as an administrator for several years before I did my PhD.

Chris Hayes: What is the University of Central Florida like as a campus, as a school?

Jonathan Cox: Yes. It's an interesting place, right. I've worked and been at a lot of really large public institutions. In some ways, it's very similar, right, lots of students from lots of different places. But you know, it's a pretty big institution in Florida so it pulls a lot of people from Florida.

But it's also a little different in some ways, right. We have a lot of, you know, what we call non-traditional students, you know. So a lot of our students are working, or full-time parents, or military or veterans, right. You know, they're starting later. They are transfer students, right, they're coming from community colleges. So it's a huge conglomeration of lots of different types of students at different levels.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, I was reading about it today. First of all, there's like 68,000 students, something like that?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah, a little more. I think, like, closer to 69,000 or above now. Yeah.

Chris Hayes: So it's the biggest one in the system. And unlike, say, the kind of flagship university that you would say Ole Miss, Bama, you know, University of Georgia in Athens, Florida --

Jonathan Cox: Right.

Chris Hayes: -- you know, UNC Chapel Hill, that tend to be almost entirely full-time students living in dorms.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And increasingly, I think over time, even though they do cut a wide swath, or Penn State, right, they do cut a wider swath than private schools, increasingly tend, over time (ph), have been more and more affluent profiles, frankly, from the students.

Jonathan Cox: Yes.

Chris Hayes: It sounds like University of Central Florida is like two schools. There's part of it that people are coming and living in dorms. And then there's an enormous community of students that are coming from non-traditional backgrounds, who are working, who are parents, who are coming out of community college. So you've got this really wide spectrum of folks at your school.

Jonathan Cox: Yes. That's one of the interesting things that I've seen about it. I think the majority of our students who live on campus are just first year students, right? And it's very few. The majority of them are, they're not on campus at all, they're commuters, right, again. And that's kind of a point of pride with the university, right. It's a very low price point, and so it's intentional so that we can pull in as many people as possible and provide access to people who otherwise might not be able to get that access.

Chris Hayes: Do you like teaching there?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah, I do. I mean, I think it's a great school. It's really innovative. I've had really great experiences in the classroom. And so, you know, other than this law --


-- and the recent stuff, I've really enjoyed it.

Chris Hayes: Tell me, what are the courses that you tend to teach?

Jonathan Cox: So I teach a lot of stuff with regards to inequality. Social inequality is the area of my department that I teach in. And so, specifically, I teach courses on race. So a couple of different classes at the undergraduate level on race specifically, a couple of different courses on education, and then some race and education courses and methodology courses at the graduate level.

Chris Hayes: And some of those undergraduate courses are about colorblindness, right? Or interrogating, introducing the concept and then kind of deconstructing it?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. So one of the classes, race and ethnicity is kind of the generic name that we have here in Florida for it. But we go over all those different things, right. So it's a survey course about race and racism in the United States. And colorblindness, I mean, again, it's a research area of mine. I usually dedicate at least, you know, one or two weeks specifically to that topic and we also then, you know, talk about it more throughout the semester.

Chris Hayes: Can you tell me a little bit your experience of who your students are, what they're coming to your class with, and what the chemistry in that class ends up being like in terms of their own backgrounds, their own racial backgrounds, their own conceptions about this stuff?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. So a lot of sociology majors, of course, with a lot of students who are from different majors, social science and otherwise, right. And we get a lot of, like, science, nursing, people who are going to go to med school, right. We get a lot of those who are coming through as well, taking them as electives.

It's usually a pretty diverse group of people who take up the classes, all right. I don't know that I ever have had just, like, predominantly one group. I mean, obviously UCF is predominantly white, although not nearly as much as many other places; it's actually a really diverse place. So we have a wide spectrum of students that take these courses. And then you'll see that among the age range and interest as well, too, right.

And so, it's a lot of different people who come together and are actually really interested in these topics, right. The environments, in my courses at least, have always been really welcoming. And they allow people, I actively encourage people, to bring their different ideas or different perspectives so that we can talk about it, right. I don't want anything to be something that you can't talk about in the class.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, I want to present the caricature of you, that is presented to a lot of people in this country, particularly through FOX and through other places, which is that essentially, like, you're running a kind of, like, indoctrination scheme, right, a kind of brainwashing situation where you're a liberal, or you have, you know, left liberal views on race and inequality.

And these students come, looking just for an education. And what you do, whether sort of explicitly or implicitly or through a kind of sneaky bait and switch, is essentially like pound that indoctrinating view into their heads, and only give them good grades if they come away saying, yes, you're right, colorblindness is a ridiculous concept and, you know, we need structural solutions, et cetera.

So I want you to respond to that because that's the rap, right? That's the rap out there about you, Jonathan Cox.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. I always laugh when I hear that because it's clearly not at all what's happening in the classes, right. I mean, I'm definitely not indoctrinating. I present evidence based on empirical data that exists.

As I said, I try to bring in lots of different perspectives and encourage students to do so. So I mean, like, for example, we talk about something like cultural appropriation. I might present one article, you know, that talks about it and saying, like, this is what it is, here's why it's really negative. And another article that presents a completely different view, and then we'll talk about it in class, so that students, you know, I don't want them to just swallow (ph) stuff.

I actually tell them all the time, like, don't take what I'm saying just to be the pure 100 percent truth, right. Like, go out and do some research on your own, I want you to be critical thinkers.

So I really try to actively fight against that caricature that you kind of expressed about what people think of in my classroom. And I also don't go and leading (ph) with my opinions. I very rarely, almost never, share my own opinion. I'm much more interested in the thoughts and ideas that students are bringing with them.

Chris Hayes: I think I read that it's, like, usually like a 35 to 40-person class, right?

Jonathan Cox: Yes (ph).

Chris Hayes: In that range. It's not just a lecture class, it sounds like. Like, there's back and forth. There's discussion.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah, absolutely. It's really discussion-based, which I think is one of the things students like about my courses, right. I do lecture but I try to break it up, right.

I don't even like to hear myself talk for that long, right. And so usually, after, you know, a few minutes of talking about something, I'm asking questions. I'm getting students to do an activity in class. You know, I want them to be really engaged, and just talking at them is definitely not going to do it.

Chris Hayes: Do things get heated? Do you ever have students being, like, mad at you, or thinking you're trying to indoctrinate them for (ph) having politics different than yours, or students with different politics kind of squaring off?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. I mean, we have lots of debates in class. I encourage it, right. I just try to make sure that if we're going to have a debate, it's going to be evidence-based, right. Don't just come in here, spitting your own opinion or some anecdotal evidence that you have with the conversation from one of your friends, right. Like, tell me where you got this from --

Chris Hayes: I've noticed there's a cafeteria --


Jonathan Cox: Right. You know, like, tell me where you get it from. Show me some papers, show me something, right, something that we can use to talk about that.

And students do, and I really appreciate that. I've never had anything that I would call a problem. We've had some very heated discussions. But I think all the students typically end up walking away with a better understanding, and at least feel like they were heard, right.

Chris Hayes: How are your teaching evals?

Jonathan Cox: They're really good. Actually, mine are like, generally speaking, even higher than like the average for my department. So I get really good evaluations overall.

Chris Hayes: I have to say, 25 minutes in this conversation, I'm not surprised at all because I'm --

Jonathan Cox: Thank you.

Chris Hayes: -- ready to sign up for your classes. OK. So you're going along doing your thing. It's so funny listening to you, too. Like, it's just cracking me up because, again, this caricature, like everything you've just described, right, like, you're just a person who clearly has, like, had a life in which you've been able to be in many different milieus, right --

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: -- like, around a lot of different people. And you definitely seem like an incredibly comfortable and affable person. It's just like, it's so --

Jonathan Cox: Thank you.

Chris Hayes: -- the opposite of the caricature. It's just like very, I mean, it's grimly funny to me as I'm talking to you. So Florida passed a law that Ron DeSantis signed. The name of the law is almost too stupid to cross my lips, but I will say it.


It is the Stop WOKE Act.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And I think one of the things that people need to understand about this is, and I think I even maybe fell prey to this a little bit, is it seems so performative, right. Like, I'm going to sign this law.

I was like, is this a real thing? But it is a real thing.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah, absolutely.

Chris Hayes: So University of Central Florida is a state school.

Jonathan Cox: Yes, it is.

Chris Hayes: And what does the law say about what can be taught at the University of Central Florida as a state school?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. So essentially, it was, again, almost a direct copy of the executive order that former President Trump put out back in like 2020 or 2021. I mean, so it really just outlines what they call divisive concepts that you're not supposed to talk about.

So you can't do things like make one race feel bad about things that their ancestors might have done. You can't talk about how there's anything inherent about racism in America. You can't talk about colorblindness as being a racist thing. You can only talk about it as being this hopeful ideal that we all should be striving towards.

And so it really just outlines like seven or eight specific yet also, I did air quotes there, specific yet also very ambiguously worded somehow at the same time, concepts and ideas that you cannot talk about, or only you're supposed to talk about in very particular ways. Otherwise, right, you are breaking the law.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And in the case of the colorblindness, one, like it's prescriptive in the sense like you can't call into question, colorblindness' role in perpetuating racial hierarchy, basically, like, as a matter of state law in the state of Florida, if you are a teacher, right?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah, exactly right. I know there's currently an injunction against the law. So like there's, you know, we're waiting for the whole appeal situation to get tried (ph) out.

But like, yeah, that's the point of the law is you cannot talk about these things, which then again is on one hand, a great example of why we need to talk about these things. But also at the other hand, right, it shows you like they are certain types of things that people are, I guess, you know, scared of hearing about, right. They understand that students knowing these things or talking about these things has a potential to disrupt the status quo.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, what I immediately thought of when I saw this is that they're not wrong in this respect.


No, they're not wrong in this respect. A lot of people go to college and have their minds opened. And --

Jonathan Cox: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- a lot of people come from households that might have a certain set of politics, and they get to college, and they get new politics.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And part of the new politics comes from their peer groups, part of it comes from what they're learning. And that's true even of like, you know, there's a lot of liberals who send their kids off to college who come back with different politics, sometimes they're Marxists or they're socialists or they're --

Jonathan Cox: Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: -- you know. But the idea that there's something happening on these campuses that is dangerous to the project of sustaining a certain kind of racialized status quo is not a false premise --

Jonathan Cox: Right.

Chris Hayes: -- if you believe that education, when done best, is opening people's minds.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. I mean, it's incredible because, again, it really just literally points out exactly what we could be doing and have been doing, right, to actually change some of these things, right. Like, it's almost like you're highlighting exactly what should be happening, but you don't want to happen.

It's this very, very, like, weird, awkward thing that just says, like, hey, everybody, look at these things that we don't want you to do because it's going to change things, and for the better for many people, right. Like, that's kind of the ways (ph) I've been looking at it.

Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: The colorblindness one, to me, is particularly notable because it essentially decrees like a kind of state religion, on this question, like the state's view is that colorblindness is good, that it doesn't perpetuate racism. And if you deviate from the state's view on this, then you know, you can't do that, which is why it runs, I think, fairly clearly afoul of the First Amendment and there's a lawsuit. There's a ruling. There's an injunction. There's an appeal, I think, before the Eleventh Circuit, which hasn't come down yet. So I don't know where it's going to go.

So when did you realize, was there a memo that went on about this? Was there a Zoom with all the teachers. Like, how were you communicated to about what the effects of this law would be for you?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. So that was the part that was probably the most concerning is that at the beginning, we knew that there was going to be a law. We knew it was going to take effect on, like, July 1st, 2022, right. So there was some time in the months before, like, that had been signed into law. It was going to happen. So we knew it was coming. So we were kind of figuring out what to do and prepare.

But there wasn't a lot of information about what the impacts were going to be, like, how they're going to be checking to see if people were running afoul of this law, like, what consequences are going to happen. Like, the enforcement aspect of it just wasn't really there.

And so a lot of us were sitting around wondering, like, what the heck do we do? How do we adjust our classes? Should we, should we not? What's going to happen? Because we don't even know what's going to be happening on the back end of this, right, and there was no information.

And I know because we weren't getting it from UCF. It wasn't because they were like, you know, trying to withhold it from us, you know, intentionally. It's because they hadn't been given any information themselves, right. I think every institution was kind of scrambling and struggling with what to do.

Chris Hayes: So they didn't know what the penalties or, like, the enforcement mechanism would be?

Jonathan Cox: No, not at first. We had no idea. I think it wasn't until later that we found out that there was going to be impacts, you know, really negative impacts on state funding, that they could lose millions of dollars or somebody losses (ph), that we could potentially lose our jobs. We didn't hear any of that stuff until much later in the process.

Chris Hayes: And it sounds like, if I'm understanding the law correctly, like, the penalties include like cutting off state funding --

Jonathan Cox: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- lack of employment if you violate the law. And I think people can sue, right? Doesn't it give like one of these like bounty vigilante things or like anyone gets to sue their professor if they think they're being too, quote/unquote, woke?

Jonathan Cox: Yes. I'm not sure about the suing part, although it wouldn't surprise me because, you know, America and Florida even more particularly, we love suing people here. But I know that pretty much anybody, whether they're in a class or not, or in the school or not, could kind of essentially bring a case up, or they could --

Chris Hayes: OK.

Jonathan Cox: -- call somebody out for doing these things, which would then trigger some type of an investigation to see if you did indeed do something against the law.

Chris Hayes: It really got totalitarian vibes, I got to say.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. Yes.


Chris Hayes: Like, getting snitched out for ideological deviance and initiating a state inquiry into your ideological deviance has like, whew, it just does not sound great.

Jonathan Cox: Yes. A lot of that stuff has been going on. And I feel like there's so many aspects of it that feel like they really bring to mind like Red Scare, like communism type of things that were happening in the past --

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Jonathan Cox: -- right? It's like, you know, anybody can call you out. Tenure may not even be protection anymore because, you know, basically DeSantis is trying to get rid of tenure down here. So yeah, it was really scary in many ways, just very confusing in others so it's not a good place to be in.

Chris Hayes: So were you in conversation going into fall? So fall semester 2022, were you in conversation with others because you have classes that we're going to be on the catalog, right?

Jonathan Cox: Yes. Yeah. So, I mean, luckily, my department is really, really supportive, right. I mean, as sociologists, we know this law really significantly impacts all of us.

But the department chair and other leadership were saying, like, hey, we know this is coming down. It's up to you. We'll support you if you want to teach the classes. We'll support you if you want to switch them out for some other class that you're teaching. Like, you make your decision and let us know. So I just kind of went through my own thought process to figure out what we're going to do from there.

Chris Hayes: Were you in contact with other professors around the state? Like, is there like e-mails or texts? You know, it's a big state system obviously --

Jonathan Cox: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- the public schools in Florida, and there's a lot of people teaching in it. And I wonder, you know, a lot of people presumably could be impacted.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. I mean, I talked to a couple people that I knew at different institutions in Florida. I mean, obviously, since I'm not from Florida and I've only been teaching here, you know, a few years, my network isn't as large as, you know, some other colleagues who've been here 10, 20-plus years.

But I definitely spoke with other professors that I knew at other Florida institutions, and they were having similar thoughts and discussions, you know, amongst themselves about what they were going to do, how to handle it, and basically just kind of the ridiculousness of the entire thing.

Chris Hayes: How did you make the decision you made?

Jonathan Cox: So for me, it was really, again, kind of thinking back to the timing of this, which is like right when the law was happening before the fall semester started. At that time, you know, I had recently had a child. So my child was almost a year old. My wife had taken off of work to stay home with the baby. So I was the only one with an income at that time.

And so, you know, kind of talking it over with her and thinking through, again, not knowing what was going to happen with this law and how it's going to be enforced, I just thought it was pretty risky to try to do something if I could potentially lose my job, knowing that I'm the only one bringing money in at that time. So that was really the ultimate decision because I really, really hated having to cancel those classes. I did not want to. I agonized over it, you know, for several weeks.

Chris Hayes: So you just decided, I mean, as just a totally understandable matter of your family's finances, like, you couldn't risk it.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. That was really, kind of, the final shot for that because I really didn't want to cancel these classes at all. I'm much more of a (ph), like, I'm going to push through, you know, forget this.

And also, knowing the way that I was teaching, I wasn't doing anything that would have run afoul this law to begin with, right. That's not how I run my classes. And so that was less the concern and more so like what if somebody just misinterpreted or brings up somebody completely outside of the class, decides they want to say something. That was really where I was seeing the potential problem.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, of course, because anyone could initiate something from outside. And obviously, like, it seems like the politics of this, you know, the people behind it and the governor want a fight, right? Like, they want to --

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: That seems like they have made the calculation. It's good politics for them to have fights about this.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. That's what it seems to be, right. It was just (ph) that whole kind of opening up like that bounty that you were talking about, the style of doing this, and that's really the concern. That's what I've talked with a lot of my colleagues about it is, like, it could be coming from anybody. It's probably not going to come from our classes, which is kind of the ironic thing.

Chris Hayes: So then what'd you do? You taught other stuff?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah, I taught a couple of other courses. But again, semi-ironically, again, I actually ended up still talking about some of these same things. It's really hard to talk about inequalities in education without talking about racism.

Chris Hayes: I mean, be like, let's see the property tax system, let's see.

Jonathan Cox: Right.


Chris Hayes: Well, that seems facially race neutral. So yeah, it looks like everything is fine.

Jonathan Cox: Exactly.

Chris Hayes: And you'll just turn your pages to the next stop (ph). Like, what, I mean, honestly what are you going to do? Like --

Jonathan Cox: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: No, I mean, I'm literally asking you, what do you do?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. I mean, that’s part of what I was realizing, like, you know what, moving forward, at least, I'm going to have to just keep teaching.

Like, I can't avoid these things. They're too important. They're too integral into a society in understanding what's actually happening. And so, like, we can't not talk about it. And so, I got to move forward. I got to find a way to just keep discussing these things and keep helping to educate people about them.

Chris Hayes: Did you have conversations with other folks who similarly had to cancel classes or --

Jonathan Cox: As far as the people that I'm connected with, it was just the folks in my department and some (ph), there were, you know, a couple other professors in my department, we all just kind of decided together. Like, yeah, we're going ahead (ph) and cancel for now, just to figure this out.

I didn't talk with anybody else who cancelled outside of class. But I did talk to other people who had just made significant changes to their classes, including, like, the title of the course and everything.

Chris Hayes: You're the only Black professor in your department?

Jonathan Cox: I am. Yes.

Chris Hayes: And you were doing like the intro race studies?

Jonathan Cox: Well, so it's actually an upper-level course.

Chris Hayes: OK.

Jonathan Cox: But there are two of us in the department that specifically teach and study race and racism, and a couple other people who do, you know, more tangential stuff on it. And so they might teach a little something, but --

Chris Hayes: I mean, it just seems like, you know, for all the hand-waving about like, colorblindness, and that this is about, you know, not getting preferential treatment. The end result of this is the one Black professor at the Florida University is not teaching the course on race.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. I know that also was not a good thing. I'm sure UCF was not happy about that. But I mean, you know, hopefully, they understood, right. What else are we going to do?

Chris Hayes: What do you think the next step is here? Like, it sounds like you've decided this is not tenable. The law seems untenable, and it seems like any, you know, correct reading of the First Amendment should strike it down, but I don't know that --

Jonathan Cox: Right.

Chris Hayes: I don't know if there's five votes for that on the Supreme Court, honestly. So who knows?

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. I mean, that's kind of the question now is like, what's going to happen? We're still waiting to see what's going to go on with this ongoing legal battle over the particular law. We clearly know that it does violate, like, even Florida constitution, so that's something interesting there.

But I mean, you know, for me, like, I just got to keep pushing forward. These topics are too important or too central. And educating our students is too important, right. That's the big aspect of this is the students come here to learn, right. And so, I don't want to not teach them something, right.

Again, they can walk away with whatever they want, right. They're adults, they can figure that out. But I'm going to present the information and, yeah, which, hopefully, it doesn't lead to, you know, too negative of an outcome for me. But, you know, what can you do?

Chris Hayes: And you're up for tenure. It sounds like you feel confident that, given the support of your department, like, this is not going to affect that at all. Like --

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. I mean, I've heard of good support from the department all the way up through the dean, who's going to look at that as well. So I feel like things are good.

And I know that the work that I'm producing is on par. I've done a lot of stuff that's above and beyond what's required of me, so I feel pretty good about it. And so hopefully, this won't have any negative impacts on it at all.

Chris Hayes: How old is your child now?

Jonathan Cox: She is 17 months.

Chris Hayes: It's awesome. How is being a dad?

Jonathan Cox: It's incredible. I love it a lot. It's definitely really, really hard. She’s actually sick --

Chris Hayes: Yeah, it is hard.

Jonathan Cox: -- right now. And so dealing with that is kind of crazy. But, I mean, I love it. It's such a great, welcome change.

Chris Hayes: I mean, if you could have, let's say, I could book a 30-minute meeting between you and Ron DeSantis, not that he's (ph) necessarily reasonable.


Like, what would you say? What do you want to say, like, about the work you do and why this law is a bad idea?

Jonathan Cox: Yes. So I mean, I think I would really try to call him back to the table with this, right? He's talked before openly about wanting students, you know, to be critical thinkers.

And I'm like, this law does literally the opposite of that, right. It does not facilitate the critical thinking skills of your students, right. In order to do that, you want to present them with a bunch of different ideas and information, and let them kind of start to figure out what it is. Is this a good source? Is it a bad source? Should I be learning something else? Was it not enough done, right?

So I would hope that he, hopefully get him to kind of understand that. And then also understand that his constituents like the students, the staff, all the faculty, everybody in Florida, for the most part, right, the majority of them want to learn about this information, regardless of their political ideas, or where they come from. They want to learn, right. They want the opportunity to at least hear about it. And then they can figure it out themselves.

He's really putting off a lot of people by kind of forcing certain things down their throat. And it's actually doing the exact things that he's saying he doesn't want to happen or is accusing us, some of us, of doing.

Chris Hayes: Jonathan Cox is an assistant sociology professor, as you heard, at the University of Central Florida. He was subjected to an incredible ProPublica piece by Daniel Golden, which is all about critical race theory, professors having to cancel courses, in some cases, modify their teaching. He's a scholar of race and inequality.

And it's just a great pleasure to talk to you, Jonathan. Thanks so much for making time.

Jonathan Cox: Yeah. Thanks, Chris. I really appreciate the opportunity. It was a pleasure talking with you as well.

Chris Hayes: Once again, my great thanks to Jonathan Cox. As you could tell, I was incredibly charmed by him.

And I just think, man, you know, sometimes one of the great things about this podcast is getting to talk to different people doing different kinds of things, different lines of work. And you know, it's just really inspiring to talk to folks that are doing good work, even under really difficult conditions. That's how I felt about Jonathan.

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, e-mail Be sure to follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod.

"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory, and featuring music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to