Members Only | March 1, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Believe it or not, rejecting Black studies hurts white people
Struggle recognizes struggle, writes Rod Graham.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is carving out an antiwoke identity.
In the process he’s going to hurt white people.
Some will be glad for it.
In 2021, he signed a law banning transgender women and girls from sports in public schools. “In Florida, girls are going to play girls sports and boys are going to play boys sports,” he said in a press conference announcing the bills’ signing.
In 2022, he passed the Parental Rights in Education, or “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” banning public school teachers from classroom instruction about gender identity or sexual orientation. Presumably, this will stop woke educators from brainwashing children into being queer.
He’s also been waging a war against a “woke” Disney World. Earlier this month, DeSantis won the right to name members of the board supervising the park. “There’s a new sheriff in town,” he said at a press conference.
Arguably the most talked about of DeSantis’ antiwoke endeavors is the rejection of an initial proposal for an advanced-placement African American studies course.
The specific content speaks volumes about the reasons for the rejection. It is not because, as the Florida Department of Education said, it lacks “educational value.”
It provides too much educational value.
Born out of struggle
In 1968, the first Black studies program was started at San Francisco State College (now university). The program was the end product of a 133-day campus strike, the longest strike of its kind in United States history.
Students wanted a degree program and Black faculty dedicated to exploring the Black experience in the United States. Their demands had popular support.
According to Dr. Noliwe Rooks, chair of Africana studies at Brown University, “white students joined with Asian students, Latino students, American Indian students, and Black students in the struggle to found the field. The battle they waged was multiracial, seeing Black studies as the first step in a wider-ranging agenda for educational, economic and social equality.”
Administrators closed the campus.
Students occupied buildings.
Police came in riot gear.
In what had become a familiar scene by the end of the 1960s, America was presented with news coverage of students being beaten and maced.
But the students won. They got their Black studies department and the ability to select some Black faculty. (A copy of the original curriculum can be found here.)
Since then, numerous programs dedicated to studying a particular group and their experiences – women, Asians, Hispanics, people living in Appalachia (one of my favorites) and queers – have emerged in universities across the country.
That ethic of struggle permeates African American studies departments. Their purpose, broadly, is speaking truth to power. That’s why Desantis is writing a colorblind narrative – to suffocate Black identity with a white identity.
He wants students to be taught to accept the status quo. African American studies departments, however, traffic in ideas that urge Black students to challenge it.
That is the struggle.
You know all those terms and ideas that seem to tick conservatives off – antiracism, systemic racism, institutional discrimination, intersectionality? They are on-ramps to critiquing heteronormative, white supremacist society.
They are subsumed under the umbrella of cRiTIcal rACe tHeORy for conservatives. They are seen as dangerous by them, and need to be driven out of the body politic.
Desantis wants compliant Black people who won’t agitate.
To that end, he’s removing ideas that point toward agitation. That’s throughline – removing ideas that would question the status quo: intersectionality and activism, black queer studies, the black lives matter movement and reparations.
To spite one’s face
An interesting dynamic often pointed out by political and cultural observers – including myself – is the willingness of white working class voters to support policies that seem to hurt them in the long run.
Think rejection of health care or investments in social services.
I’m adding another.
African American studies programs have been successful in producing and communicating ideas that bring Black struggle to the fore of American discourse.
It would be incorrect to claim ideas about race and racism can be tied to an African American studies department somewhere in this country.
But it would be equally incorrect to assume ideas produced by scholars dedicated to understanding the Black experience have not profoundly affected our discourse.
(You can get a sense of the wealth of knowledge by browsing a list of readings compiled by a university in DeSantis’ own backyard, the University of Florida).
This treasure trove of ideas emanating from African American studies, and more fundamentally, the ethic of struggle that permeates those departments, can be applied to white folks and their struggles.
But by supporting DeSantis’ efforts, white working class voters in Florida are cutting off their noses to spite their faces. While ostensibly pushing back against what they see as “woke indoctrination,” they are also pushing back against the notion that it is possible to speak truth to power.
So the upper-class Yale and Harvard-educated Ron DeSantis will continue to juggle shiny culture war baubles in front of constituents while ignoring multiracial drug addiction, social isolation, poor health and income inequality.
Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's neighborhood sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.