Enlightened and ‘woke as hell’ Democrats decry GOP, DeSantis-led ‘culture war’ on Black history

“A lot of this stuff is racism at its core,” Florida State Senator Shevrin Jones tells theGrio.

“Woke as hell,” Democratic lawmakers marked this Black History Month fighting to preserve the future of Black history instruction in public classrooms to ensure students learn about the storied contributions of African Americans to this nation.

More than 40 states have introduced or passed legislation limiting discussion about race in public schools and colleges, according to tracking efforts by Education Week. But Black legislators have countered the assault on Black history with bills tying federal funding to Black history instruction and offering multi-million dollar investment in education initiatives.

After introducing one such bill earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York declared outside the Capitol, “We are standing here enlightened, empowered, and we are woke as hell. So you can try to continue with your anti-woke agenda, but the only people who ain’t woke is you.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Since 2021, several states, including Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Georgia and Mississippi, have enacted laws restricting specific aspects of lessons about race in classrooms. Conservatives have notably targeted critical race theory — taught only at the undergraduate and graduate levels. They have argued that the subject matter is divisive and inappropriate for young students. There is no evidence of the course’s existence in K-12 schools, and the head of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers’ union in the United States, said as much.

But in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis continued his quest to end what he calls a “woke” culture that threatens to indoctrinate children. Last year, DeSantis – an expected presidential candidate in 2024 – signed the Stop W.O.K.E. Act into law, which prohibits specific courses, books and discussions about race in classrooms and workplaces. The acronym stands for “Wrongs to our Kids and Employees.” 

And more recently, DeSantis blocked the teaching of the College Board’s advanced placement course on African American studies in public high schools. At least four other states – Arkansas, Virginia, North Dakota and Mississippi – recently announced they would review the AP course following DeSantis’ action to determine if it violates their state laws and restrictions on teaching about race.

Democratic leaders and civil rights groups have responded in outrage at the increased Republican targeting of Black studies and history courses. They argue that such bans come at the expense of Black people who continue to endure bias and racial disparities in U.S. society from employment to healthcare.

U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost of Florida told theGrio that DeSantis’ focus on restricting Black history, sexuality and gender discussions in classrooms is “more than a culture war,” as many have described it.

“This is direct violence on communities. It will result in death. It will result in trauma. It will result in people being bullied in school,” said Frost, the first Generation Z member elected to Congress. “There are real tangible effects here that we have to talk about.”

“It’s not just DeSantis talking,” he added. “This is real for our kids. This is real for our communities.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) speaks at a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol Building on February 02, 2023 in Washington, DC. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus held the news conference on new legislation to preserve Black history in America’s classrooms. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Democratic U.S. Reps. Bowman, Joyce Beatty of Ohio, and Kweisi Mfume of Maryland introduced a trio of bills to preserve Black history in schools to respond to the latest state battles over teaching about race in classrooms.

“To the Republican Party and Ron DeSantis, do me a favor – pick up a book and read,” said Bowman, who, along with U.S. Senator Cory Booker, reintroduced the African American History Act. That legislation would allocate $10 million during the next five years for the National Museum of African American History and Culture to support African American history education programs.

“Read an African American history curriculum so that you can understand that the birth of European history started on the continent [of] Africa,” Bowman said. “We know that you are trying to erase that history because you don’t want Black people to have knowledge itself.”

Bowman, an educator-turned-politician, linked the political battle over Black history to the broader connection between education and policy. Speaking directly to Republicans, he said, “Knowledge is power. It uplifts humanity. When we have more knowledge, we make better decisions, and then we can solve humanity’s most pressing issues like hunger and climate change and homelessness and poverty – and all the stuff you don’t want us to solve.”

U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-FL) questions witness during a a House House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on the U.S. southern border, in the Rayburn House Office Building on February 07, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Beatty and Mfume also reintroduced legislation that would mandate Black history as a requirement for schools to receive certain federal grants and establish a 12-person National Council on African American History and Culture to advise the National Endowment for the Humanities.

State Senator Shevrin Jones has been on the frontlines in Florida protesting DeSantis’ “anti-woke” agenda – which he says is really “anti-Black.”

“A lot of this stuff is racism at its core,” Jones told theGrio. The Florida A&M University graduate said the Republican party’s war on Black and LGBTQ studies is part of a larger political ploy to “get the attention of their base.”

“The sad part about it is [that] they are doing it on the backs of marginalized people, whether it’s the LGBTQ community, whether it’s the immigrant community, whether it’s now the Black community,” said the Florida lawmaker. “It has nothing to do with policy. It has nothing to do with bettering the lives of people. All of it is based on control.”

Florida State Senator Shevrin Jones speaks at press conference with civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who announced a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis for blocking an AP African American studies course. (Photo: YouTube/First Coast News)

But Frost points out that the culture war on Black history, LGBTQ identity and immigration, has morphed into a pattern of political extremists being “radicalized by this far-right movement.”

Frost – who ran for Congress championing gun reform, among other policy issues – said there’s a direct connection between the political far-right and the wave of racially-motivated hate crimes nationwide.

“You don’t know what the tipping point is for them to go out and do something that they would regret but that also would cause harm to communities,” he said. 

“When they are asked about how they got to where they were and when we dive in deep in the mental,” Frost said, “what we realize is there were core leaders at the forefront of pushing them to make those decisions: Governor DeSantis [and] Donald Trump.”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is the Managing Editor of Politics and White House Correspondent at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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