The backlash is rightfully growing to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis blocking a proposed Advanced Placement course on African American studies from being taught in Florida high schools. Black leaders held a rally in Florida denouncing DeSantis; prominent lawyer Ben Crump threatened to sue DeSantis and his administration on behalf of Black students; and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, called out DeSantis as an “extremist.”
In DeSantis’ view, banning a Black history course will make him more popular. This is what toxic white identity politics looks like.
If you think this backlash will cause DeSantis to back down, then you don’t understand what’s at play. Despite his claim that he wants to ensure that Florida’s students are not “indoctrinated," that’s not what his opposition is about. It is solely about DeSantis making himself more popular with the GOP base in order to win the 2024 presidential nomination. That’s why parsing through his stated objections to this AP course is a waste of time. In DeSantis’ view, banning a Black history course will make him more popular. This is what toxic white identity politics looks like.
After all, the legal basis for the ban on this AP African American studies course is the “Stop WOKE” Act DeSantis championed and signed into law in 2022. Portions of the Florida law that deal with employers and public colleges have been put on hold in two separate federal court decisions. In the November ruling addressing public universities and colleges, the judge slammed the law by quoting the first sentence of 1984, George Orwell’s famous novel about life under a totalitarian government: “‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,’ and the powers in charge of Florida’s public university system have declared the State has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of ‘freedom.’” The judge added, “This is positively dystopian.”
The "Stop WOKE" law was part of the national GOP’s war on what they dubbed “critical race theory” (“CRT”) designed to curtail, and even ban, discussions on race in schools. Florida is one of 18 GOP-controlled states that enacted such law between 2021 and 2022. So-called CRT bans are supported by supported by 80% of Republicans nationwide, which the ambitious DeSantis fully grasps.
Republican voters’ hostility to teaching Black history in school did not happen overnight but has been building over the past two decades. As Michael Tesler, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine noted in a 2018 analysis for The Washington Post, in 2000, the percentage of Americans who thought too much Black history was being taught in public schools was in the single digits for Democrats and in the single digits for Republicans. Tesler noted that “Democrats haven’t changed in the past two decades. Republicans, however, are now 30 points more likely to say schools should teach less black history.”
For that analysis, Tesler also cited a February 2018 poll which found that a third of people who’d voted for Donald Trump in 2016 believed “American children should solely be taught about Western civilization and European / US History.”
Republican voters’ hostility to teaching Black history in school did not happen overnight but has been building over the past two decades.
Why do so many white Republicans oppose teaching about Black history and racism? Recent polls that find white Republicans are increasingly describing themselves as being equally subject to discrimination as people of color. In 2015, only 38% of white Republicans responded that white people face a lot of discrimination. That’s the year that Trump lauched a presidential campaign that was also a white grievance campaign. More recent polls suggest a massive change. Last year, CNN referred to the work of Emily Ekins of The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. She found that 73% of those who voted for Trump in 2020 believe “today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”
This rise of perceived white victimhood in the GOP helps explain why DeSantis is publicly defending the ban on the AP African American studies course, claiming that somehow the course “is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids.” Don’t be surprised if we soon learn of Republicans pushing to ban all Black history from being taught in schools. In fact, the next logical step is for politicians such as DeSantis to push for courses that teach how white people have suffered unjustly in American because of their race!
The College Board, the nonprofit organization which oversees the Advanced Placement program, announced last week that it's revising the African American studies course and will "release the official framework" Wednesday, Feb. 1. A spokesperson for the College Board wouldn't say if the revision was in response to DeSantis' obstruction.
The stakes of this fight are very real. As Democratic Florida State Sen. Shevrin “Shev” Jones powerfully put it in opposing DeSantis efforts to erase Black history: “We have the potential of raising an entire generation of Black children who will not be able to see themselves represented in their own state or in their education.”
For DeSantis, the stakes are equally real as he eyes a 2024 run for president. And the more backlash to his ban of the African American AP course, the more DeSantis will be viewed by the GOP base as standing up for white people who feel like they are victims. None of that is meant to help the children of Florida. It’s all designed to help the political ambitions of one Ron DeSantis.