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The Past Isn't Even Past, Especially in Florida

In my senior Southern Literature class, I’m about to teach Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner’s great novel about how racism has warped America. I ask my students to think about the stories Faulkner tells: the dispossession of the Chickasaw people, the enslaved woman who drowns herself in despair, and the white family struggling to accept that the admired patriarch who built their Mississippi cotton kingdom also raped his own daughter. Here at Florida State University, in the capital city of the third state to join the Confederacy, I ask them to consider the ways our troubled past haunts our precarious present. I start writing dates on the board—1619, 1830, 1863—and I wonder if somebody will accuse me of breaking Florida law.

Governor Ron DeSantis sees Florida’s colleges and universities as hotbeds of trendy theories, where professors delight in propagating Marxism, pushing anti-racism, and undermining traditional gender identity. He likes to say he puts on “the full armor of God” to fight “wokeism” and create a “patriotic” education system. To that end, Florida has banned the teaching of what DeSantis declares erroneous doctrine, especially critical race theory and “The 1619 Project.” Both challenge our happier myths: that the Founding Fathers hated slavery even though they owned slaves, or that rugged individualism enables anyone to succeed if they just work hard enough. DeSantis doesn’t want Florida schools to explore how the legacy of slavery still casts a structural shadow on our democracy; to examine white privilege; or, as the “Stop WOKE Act” he pushed through our supine legislature puts it, to instruct students in topics that might cause “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” on account of their race. A federal judge has temporarily halted the law’s implementation, but the state has a good chance of winning on appeal to the Eleventh Circuit, which is dominated by Donald Trump appointees.

Whatever happens in the courts, academic liberty in the state that DeSantis calls the “freest” in America has already been damaged. Professors now add careful, lawyerly language to our course descriptions. The syllabus for a fall 2022 University of Florida seminar on how Black artists use the Gothic to explore racial oppression states, “No lesson is intended to espouse, promote, advance, inculcate, or compel a particular feeling, perception, or belief.” I remind students that I do not judge them on their opinions, only on how they support those opinions with facts and evidence. Academics in less protected positions sometimes feel pressured to censor themselves. As The Atlantic and ProPublica reported, Jonathan Cox, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Central Florida, canceled two popular courses examining race, ethnicity, and “the myth of a color-blind society,” because he worried he could lose his job.

Nervous administrators issue memos trying to reassure faculty, even as they promise our government masters that we’ll play nice. The University of Florida has produced a slideshow warning that if instructors offend against state edicts, UF could suffer “large financial penalties”—perhaps tens of millions of dollars cut from its annual appropriation. Janet Kistner, the vice president for faculty development and advancement at FSU, sent out a memo telling us that we can’t try to force our students “to believe any … ‘specified concepts’ (each based on race, color, sex, or national origin) because such action would be per se discriminatory under the amended statute.”

In other words, we must not upset conservative white folks. More important, we must not upset DeSantis, who has many allies in his war to bring offending institutions to heel. The presidents of Florida’s community colleges recently signed a statement supporting DeSantis’s education crusade and denouncing critical race theory. The people who rule Florida’s universities are also committed to implementing the governor’s vision. The University of Florida’s Board of Trustees, a third of whom are major DeSantis campaign donors, are dismissive of academic freedom. When the University of Florida denied three political scientists permission to testify as expert witnesses in a case challenging the state’s voting restrictions, the political scientists—raised hell. UF Trustees Chairman Mori Hosseini expressed his displeasure with them, calling them “disrespectful,” and threatened “our legislators are not going to put up with the wasting of state money.”

Read entire article at The Atlantic