Florida Proposes New Law To Protect White Feelings From Discussions Of Racism
The Florida bill is the latest in many Republican efforts to restrict ideas, deny racism and whitewash history.
January 28, 2022 at 7:33 pm
Florida has a long history of racism. The very first enslaved Africans to arrive in the United States reached Florida in 1528, almost a century before slavery was introduced to Virginia by the English in 1619. During the first half of the 20th century, Florida experienced the highest number of lynchings per capita of any state in the nation. This racial terror included the 1923 Rosewood Massacre, in which an angry white mob destroyed an entire Black town and likely killed dozens of its residents. More recently, the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.
For Florida, white discomfort is more important than Black suffering.
With such a long and sordid history of anti-Black racism, you would think that this topic would be an important part of Florida’s history curriculum. But as horrible as this legacy of racial oppression may be, the Florida state legislature seems to believe that there’s something even worse than Florida’s history of racism and violence: making white people feel bad about that history. Republicans in power in Florida are moving to make it illegal to make people — let’s be honest, to make white people — uncomfortable by discussing topics such as white privilege or racial oppression.
This is a joke, right?
No, this is not a joke. CNN reports that the Republican-controlled Florida state government is pushing a new, cynically named “Individual Freedom” bill that would restrict public schools and private employers from talking about racism in ways that make people uncomfortable. The bill, which has already been approved by the State Senate Education Committee, would outlaw any form of public education or job-related training that makes people "feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin."
Republicans promoting the bill argue that they don’t want people — again, they really mean white people — to be told that they are racist simply because of their racial identity. When asked for actual examples of this ever happening, the Republicans have so far failed to come up with any real-world instances of this happening. Much like the voter suppression laws that have been passed in Florida and several other states, the legislature seems happy to use an imaginary problem to justify real restrictions on the rights of Black people to discuss and fight against their oppression.
There has to be a term for something this ridiculous, no?
Yes — this bill seems to be a clear example of what sociologist Robin DiAngelo has described as “white fragility.” DiAngelo, who is white, defines the concept like this:
In a nutshell, it's the defensive reactions so many white people have when our racial worldview, positions, or advantages are questioned or challenged. For a lot of white people, just suggesting that being white has meaning will trigger a deep, defensive response. And that defensiveness serves to maintain both our comfort and our positions in a racially inequitable society from which we benefit.
In other words, by focusing on the discomfort associated with discussions of racism, racial violence and oppression, those who benefit from such practices can deflect public conversations away from the actual issues.
This is the latest of many similar moves in Florida and around the country.
Last year, Florida became one of many states to pass a ban against public schools teaching critical race theory, or CRT. Despite the fact that CRT is a graduate-level analysis of racial bias in American institutions, the term has been misused by conservatives to label and often ban more general discussions of racism and American history as part of an agenda for censoring and whitewashing the county’s past and present racism. Florida and a number of other states also restrict teaching material from The 1619 Project, the Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of the legacy of slavery and racism in the U.S.
These bans are having a noticeable impact on the state. For instance, a history professor’s lecture on the civil rights movement was canceled by the Osceola County School District for fear that it might violate the broad critical race theory ban; even though the talk was not about CRT, schools are afraid of being accused of violating the ban.
Beyond serving the purpose of protecting racist institutions, these policies also have a more directly political purpose. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has used controversial, right-wing policy decisions concerning education, masking and vaccines to make himself a rising star in the Republican Party. DeSantis is up for reelection this year, facing potential Democratic challengers including U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, and he is also thought to be a potential Republican candidate for president in 2024. By taking these far-right positions, DeSantis is building a following and making himself a potential rival to former President Donald Trump for leadership of the Republican Party.
Black Democratic legislators call out their colleagues for pandering to their base.
Although the Republican majority has been successful in advancing the bill so far, Florida Democrats, especially Black legislators, have been fighting against the proposed law. State Sen. Shevrin Jones told the local CBS News station that he was "ashamed of what we’re doing here in Florida.” Jones, who represents Miami Gardens, the home of Trayvon Martin, added that the state was “trying to eliminate and censor how we teach true Black history."
State Rep. Ramon Alexander, who said he found the arguments for the current bill “offensive,” spoke against the proposed law at a Florida State House Judiciary Committee meeting this week. Questioning the motives behind the bill, Alexander told the Republican members of his committee: “I’m going to say this as professionally as I can: y’all gotta find another way to communicate to your base.” Bringing up pressing issues in Florida, including “systemic poverty” and other quality of life issues, Alexander said that having to debate this bill “is a huge waste of time.”
The “white discomfort ❄️” bill passed another Florida GOP controlled committee yesterday, but not without this powerful testimony from Rep. @RamonAlexander.
Putting the full thing here so future generations, if allowed, can see who fought against whitewashing history. pic.twitter.com/S32limhfvT
— Kevin Cate (@KevinCate) January 27, 2022
“We are better than this,” Alexander told his colleagues while being called out of order by the chair of his committee. “I’m not anti-American, but I am an American, and my voice matters just as much as your voice,” Alexander said at the end of his remarks, concluding that his colleagues “can’t handle the truth.”
With democracy and truth under attack in Florida and around the nation, the “Individual Freedom” bill is a disturbing example of where our country is heading. Republicans continue to deny Black people our fundamental rights and even question our identity as real Americans. Now, even white feelings are being prioritized over Black lives. Proposals like the new Florida bill demonstrate that the fight for equality will be long and hard, especially as long as Republicans are able to push an anti-democratic and anti-truth agenda.