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Black students are right to take personally Ron DeSantis' latest attack on diversity

Members of Black Greek-letter organizations forced a change in Florida's latest anti-diversity bill, but they shouldn't stop pushing until the bill is killed.
Members of Delta Sigma Theta sorority dance during the Indiana University Homecoming Parade in Bloomington, Ind.
Members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority participate in the Indiana University Homecoming Parade in Bloomington, Ind., in 2021. Jeremy Hogan / Sipa via AP file

Black people often refer to the nine historically Black college fraternities and sororities in the United States as the Divine Nine.  Whether it’s Vice President Kamala Harris, who is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha; the late Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights titan who belonged to Phi Beta Sigma; or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who belonged, as I do, to Alpha Phi Alpha, these groups have shaped bright young students into future leaders since 1906, all while serving as highly recognizable public-service organizations throughout Black America.

These organizations have shaped future leaders since 1906, all while serving as highly recognizable public service organizations throughout Black America.

It is deeply unsettling, then, that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies who serve in the Florida Legislature with me are pushing a bill that, at least as originally drafted, could have been used to erase the presence of my fraternity and the other members of the Divine Nine on our state’s public college campuses.  Overall, House Bill 999, with its explicit opposition to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and its opposition to course content and majors that address the history of oppression, seeks to take Florida and its campuses back to a time before women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color were considered respected, valued members of society.

This obviously isn’t the first time Florida Republicans have done something like this. Last year, DeSantis signed the so-called Stop Woke Act, which stops certain topics related to oppression from being discussed on college campuses.  A federal judge blocked its enforcement in November, and on Thursday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied DeSantis’ right to begin enforcing the law.

Last week, I was proud to see members of Florida A&M’s Black fraternities and sororities tap into their history of civic involvement and show up at a hearing and explain to my colleagues why House Bill 999 is so problematic.  The governor has denied that such organizations would be affected. And while I am grateful that the Sen. Erin Grall, a Republican from Vero Beach who sponsored the senate's version of the bill, heard those students’ concerns and removed language that could have inflicted great harm to these organizations, I still cannot in good conscience support this general effort to dismantle diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education. 

 HB 999 seeks to ban Florida’s public colleges from paying for “programs or campus activities that espouse diversity, equity, or inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric” and would prohibit majors and minors with coursework touching on race theory, gender studies and intersectionality.  As a result, it could eradicate entire majors such as African American studies, gender studies and women’s studies. 

Professors would be bullied into teaching only what power-hungry politicians deem appropriate.

For faculty who do not comply with this mandate, the Florida Board of Governors — a 17-member body largely appointed by the governor that oversees all of the public universities in the state — would be able to review and rescind tenure. Professors would be bullied into teaching only what power-hungry politicians deem appropriate. If it were to become law, this bill would chill academic freedom. It’s no wonder, then, that organizations such as the American Historical Association Council oppose it. 

As mentioned, this ill-conceived bill threatens students and their on-campus organizations. And not just Greek organizations but groups such as Florida State’s Black Student Union, the University of South Florida’s Asian Students in America or Spectrum, an LGBTQ rights group at Florida A&M.  Students trying to understand the world in which they exist and the inequities in our society would be penalized for doing what we should expect all students to do: analyze their communities and fight for progress.  Higher education is supposed to be an experience through which students can explore new topics and be exposed to diversity of thought across various areas of study. 

After I was elected as a state senator in 2020, I visited every public university in the state to meet with university presidents, administrators, professors and students. I gave out my personal mobile phone number and urged everyone to contact me or my office with any concerns. I’ve not received one phone call about there being too much diversity, equity and inclusion on campus.  Nor have I received a call complaining about majors such as women’s studies.

Contrary to what DeSantis and my conservative colleagues would have you believe, professors at our state schools do not indoctrinate students.  They don’t tell them what to think or believe. They help them develop the critical thinking skills necessary to debate the issues in our complex world. 

House Bill 999 is part of a larger war to curtail students’ ability to think, question and engage in our democracy.

It’s those who are pushing this dangerous legislation who want our next generation to be compliant, ill-informed and ill-equipped to live in modern society. As he obviously prepares to run for president, DeSantis’ systematic attack on public education is far bigger than this bill.  House Bill 999 is part of a larger war to curtail students’ ability to think, question and engage in our democracy. 

Engaging in our democracy was what those Divine Nine members from Florida A&M were doing when they showed up at last week’s committee and got some of the language in House Bill 999 changed.  And it’s what all Floridians, whether they’re in those organizations or not, need to do to help kill the entire bill. 

CORRECTION (March 19, 2023, 2:42 ET) A previous version of this article included outdated biographical information for Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones. Because of redistricting, Jones now represents the state’s 34th district, not the 35th.