Teachers, civil rights leaders fight DeSantis history whitewash
Vice President Kamala Harris has been challenging the racist education policies of Ron DeSantis. | AP

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—Right-wing Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s whitewash—the word is deliberate—of U.S. history is upsetting teachers, students, civil libertarians, and civil rights leaders. A dark cloud of racism, they say, has descended on the Sunshine State’s schools.

But teachers, students, and civil liberties groups are fighting back, with rallies, lobbying, and, for the ACLU, a lawsuit that’s resulted in a win in U.S. District Court. DeSantis is appealing that, though.

All this is occurring because DeSantis hates teachers, their unions, public schools, and their students of color—and because he perceives that extreme positions against teachers and students will let him out-trump Donald Trump in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

To accomplish that, the DeSantis-named State Board of Education decreed there would be new history curricula in the state’s public schools, downplaying the enslavement of African Americans and even saying the enslaved sometimes benefited by learning trades.

The flip side of that dictate, which the governor has extended to the state’s public universities, is to whitewash the white enslavers of the pre-Civil War era, as well as the repressive white nationalism after the end of Reconstruction in 1877.

Notable African Americans and their allies, up to and including Vice President Kamala Harris, an African American, and her boss, Democratic President Joe Biden, are outraged. The NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens issued “travel advisories” in May, warning Black and brown people against visiting Florida. The Human Rights Campaign also flagged Florida.

“DeSantis has perfected the art of using policy violence that we must stop,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said then. The group denounced DeSantis’s “aggressive attempts to erase Black history and to restrict diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in Florida schools.”

DeSantis’s rhetoric and actions make Florida dangerous, they warned. LULAC warned Latinos could be picked up, arrested, and deported at a moment’s notice, regardless of their citizenship status. And if people of color live in Florida, they must resist and speak out, said Johnson.

But the top targets of DeSantis’s crusade are the schools and their teachers. That doesn’t surprise Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s joint Teachers (AFT)-National Education Association affiliate.

He’s also not surprised that DeSantis and his compliant Republican supermajority in the GOP-gerrymandered state legislature passed the “Stop WOKE Act” mandating a whitewashed school curriculum, while also stripping teachers, from kindergarten up through college of protections—tenure and union certification—they can use to defend their freedom to teach and their students’ freedom to learn free of ideological indoctrination.

DeSantis and his legislative mob want “history devoid of context,” Spar wrote in a recent op-ed. The governor also wants to pit parents against teachers, by egging right wingers on.

Citing DeSantis’s statements about enslavement, Spar said the governor “envisions a history curriculum that downplays the horror of slavery while ignoring pivotal events” such as a 1957 state legislature resolution denouncing the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous anti-segregation Brown v. Board of Education decision.

That resolution called the justices’ 9-0 ruling “null, void, and of no force or effect,” in Florida.

Can’t forget history

“When our state intentionally forgets historical events such as Florida’s response to Brown, how can we ever reckon with the racial disparities still present in public education today?” Spar asked in the op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel-Star.

DeSantis’s whitewash also doesn’t surprise AFT President Randi Weingarten, a New York City civics teacher who has a law degree.

“In Florida, the Department of Education threatened teachers and librarians with felony prosecution if they provide students with books the state later decides are inappropriate,” she said earlier this year. “Colleges will no longer have diversity, equity or inclusion policies, or tenure, or academic freedom. AP (advanced placement) courses” with the full story of U.S. history “and the mere utterance of ‘LGBTQIA+’ will be banned in all K-12 schools.

“And forget about facts. Many laws and pending bills allow any individual to sue schools and teachers for perceived violations. The intent and effect are to create a climate of fear and intimidation.”

Floridians are fighting back against DeSantis’s racism. The FEA has organized marches, rallies, and lobbying in the state capital of Tallahassee.

The NEA, the nation’s largest union, staged a mass rally against racism during its 6,000-delegate convention over the Independence Day holiday. The convention was in Orlando.

Jorje Botello, a civics and history teacher in Okeechobee, told NEA Today during the rally that it’s hard to teach those subjects as teachers fear for their jobs.

Added Hillsborough County (Tampa) Teachers Association Vice President Johnny Green: “Politicians are making educators fear they might be fired or arrested. We’re losing people every day. They’re stressed out. They used to want to be teachers, but now it’s not a road anyone wants to take.” Many teachers have fled Florida, which now has a large teacher shortage.

And the Florida ACLU went to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta—which also covers Florida—against DeSantis’s anti-diversity crusade in the state college system. A lower court sided with the ACLU, but DeSantis appealed that ruling. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other civil rights groups joined the ACLU suit.

“The lawsuit argues the Stop W.O.K.E. Act violates the” U.S. Constitution’s “1st and 14th Amendments by imposing viewpoint-based restrictions on educators and students, which are also unconstitutionally vague,” the ACLU of Florida explained.

“Additionally, it argues the Stop W.O.K.E. Act violates the [Constitution’s] Equal Protection Clause because it was enacted with the intent to discriminate against Black educators and students.”

Let Florida Education Association chief Spar have the last word: “We will show this governor, and other dictators, that they can’t take us back to the 1950s!” he told the Orlando crowd.

We hope you appreciated this article. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all, but we need your help. Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader-supported. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, please support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today. Thank you!


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.