The Republicans’ war on ‘woke’ has turned the party into a group of hysterical Chicken Littles

OPINION: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' and other Republicans' use of anti-wokeness rhetoric to further oppress marginalized communities further illustrates the sad decline of the party, which once took a principled moral stand against slavery.

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

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Some Republicans are demonizing and redefining a word popularized in the Black community: “woke.” They’ve turned the word into a slur, using it to attack diversity, equity and inclusion, along with additional policies that benefit Black Americans and other oppressed and marginalized people. 

The reaction by many Republicans — chief among them Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — to “wokeness” resembles the hysterical response of Chicken Little in an old children’s story. When an acorn falls on her head, Chicken Little panics, yelling “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” 

DeSantis and other Republicans now screaming about “wokeness” make as much sense as a frightened chicken. But the governor, who is expected to announce his Republican presidential candidacy in the spring, clearly hopes his anti-wokeness obsession will get him the nomination in pursuit of moving into the White House.

Meanwhile, DeSantis is not alone. Some Congressional Republicans have even laughably said the recent failure of Silicon Valley Bank in California was caused by the bank devoting too much attention to pursuing “woke” policies. In fact, Republican-backed banking deregulation legislation signed into law by then-President Donald Trump may have played a far greater role in the bank’s collapse.

The word “woke” used to just mean awake, as when we say: I woke up at 7 this morning. 

But beginning in 1923 with Black nationalist and civil rights pioneer Marcus Garvey, Black people began urging each other to stay awake — or stay woke — to the dangers posed by Jim Crow-styled racism and social injustice and to work against these evils. The expression gained circulation over the decades and was picked up in music popular with Black audiences.

Indeed, two years after the historic 1963 March on Washington, in a commencement address at Oberlin College, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also challenged the students to prepare for the great revolution of their time by essentially being awake:

“There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in our world today. It is a social revolution, sweeping away the old order. … The wind of change is blowing, and we see in our day and our age a significant development. … The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake through this social revolution.”

The hashtag #StayWoke spread on social media after neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black 17-year-old, in 2012 and was later acquitted of second-degree murder. The phrase and hashtag were picked up by the Black Lives Matter movement and gained traction following police killings of unarmed Black people.

DeSantis and other Republicans have turned the meaning of “woke” on its head, changing it from a warning and a sign of awareness of injustice into an insult. They use the terms “woke” and “wokeness” to ridicule people and attitudes they consider to be absurdly far left, hypersensitive and obsessed with political correctness.

Advocates for people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, women’s rights, accurate public school education on race and gender issues, and social justice have been denounced as “woke” by Republicans including DeSantis, Trump (again seeking the Republican presidential nomination), and longshot GOP presidential candidate and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

The Republican war on wokeness illustrates the sad decline of the party, which once took a principled moral stand against slavery. Sadly, Republicans today are obsessed with stoking the fires of hatred and grievance and dividing Americans. Not quite a winning strategy to make it into the White House, but we will have to prepare ourselves for this battle ahead.

Rather than accepting responsibility for their own shortcomings that have worsened America’s problems, particularly under Trump’s incompetent administration, many Republicans now choose to scapegoat Black people and others opposed to GOP policies with the label “woke,” blaming them for our nation’s ills.

DeSantis boasts about signing the Stop WOKE (Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees) Act, which bars public school instruction that could cause students to “feel guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress” due to their race, color, sex or national origin. That absurdly broad prohibition — now being challenged in lawsuits — is being used to block lessons on slavery, racism, sexism, religious bigotry, prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community and more.    

Think about it: how can an accurate lesson about the way enslaved Black people were horribly mistreated as subhuman “property” with no more rights than farm animals not cause “psychological distress”?  It’s not as if once unburdened with the chains and shackles could Black folks gain their rights as citizens. Our ancestors had to fight for their own freedom and this struggle persists today as other grave injustices cause “psychological distress” among some other students.

Hundreds participate in the National Action Network demonstration in response to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s rejection of a high school African American history course, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023 in Tallahassee, Fla. (Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat via AP)

But schools aren’t supposed to be free of negative information about America. They’re supposed to teach students about the real world — the good, the bad and the ugly. Schools are supposed to open up our curiosities about the world we live in and how to navigate our place in it.

To ensure Florida students are not exposed to the truth about slavery and racism, the Florida Education Department even banned a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies from being taught in the state’s high schools. The department said in a January letter that “the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” I am so glad my relatives in Florida were able to get a good education before this nonsense started.

As the anti-wokeness nuttiness spreads across the country, growing numbers of states and school districts controlled by Republicans are imposing censorship on teachers and ordering books removed from school libraries for being woke. A RAND Corporation study published in January that surveyed a nationally representative sample of 8,000 teachers found that a quarter have changed their courses to limit or remove any discussions of race and gender topics.

Incredibly, an eighth-grade social studies teacher in Iowa recorded a Zoom meeting with his school superintendent in which she told him she wasn’t sure if he was allowed to teach that “slavery was wrong.” The uncertainty was generated by a new Iowa law barring teachers from telling students that “the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.” In response, the teacher quit and left the teaching profession. 

What has our country come to when teachers are silenced from telling students basic and indisputable truths, like denouncing the immorality of slavery? When book banning is so prevalent in our schools? When elected officials refuse to deal with the real problems facing our nation and fixate on silly culture war issues and disputes over wokeness?

We’ve heard enough wokeness nonsense from Republican Chicken Littles. Americans need to reject this alarmism and believe that we can work together to share our stories, embrace our family history and start working together to solve the real problems facing our nation.

As Dr. King would remind us, the wind of change is still stirring in our midst. Let’s make sure this phony war of “wokeness” doesn’t take us off our mark towards a more perfect union for all.

Donna Brazile Headshot

Donna Brazile is an ABC News Contributor, veteran political strategist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and the King Endowed Chair in Public Policy at Howard University. She previously served as interim Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute. She managed the Gore campaign in 2000 and has lectured at more than 225 colleges and universities on race, diversity, women, leadership and restoring civility in politics. Brazile is the author of several books, including the New York Times’ bestseller “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House.” @DonnaBrazile.

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