When Ron DeSantis recently threatened to end AP courses for all high schoolers in Florida, he did more than escalate the culture war that right-wing reactionaries are waging against “critical race theory” and anti-racism. DeSantis signaled his willingness to join a long line of Southern governors who have used racism to deflect attention from their failure to help people hurting in their states, especially poor and low-wealth people. Even if DeSantis never attacked Black history or trans people, moral leaders and impacted people should be standing up, speaking out, organizing, and voting because of the way his policy decisions have sacrificed the well-being of Floridians, especially the more than 10 million poor and low-wage people, be they Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native, LQBTQIA, or straight. DeSantis wants to argue about whether white students feel guilty when they learn the truth about America’s past, but he has been silent about the fact that 47 percent of Florida’s citizens are poor and low-income, including 39 percent of all white people in his state. Since 1979, income for the top 1 percent of Floridians has nearly doubled. But for everyone else, real income has actually fallen over the same four decades. That’s as true for poor white folks as it is for poor Black folks.
Like Harry Byrd, Lester Maddox, and George Wallace, who each made national news for their defiance of desegregation efforts in the mid-20th century, DeSantis has stepped into the national spotlight by performing outrage that excites his political base. He may want the attention he’s getting from challenging the College Board, but those of us who know DeSantis is wrong should not let his tactics deflect from the many ways everyday people in Florida are suffering.
If you earn the minimum wage of $11 an hour in Florida, you need to work nearly 80 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment. As of 2018, half of Florida’s workforce made less than $15 an hour, and 2.7 million people did not have health insurance. When you disaggregate these statistics by race, Black and Latino people are disproportionately impacted by poverty, lack of health care, and the denial of a living wage. But in raw numbers, more white people are struggling to get by than any other racial group. As the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois once noted, the sort of political posturing DeSantis is engaged in may offer the “psychological wages” of whiteness—the promise of a privileged place in an imagined racial hierarchy. But those wages don’t put a roof over your head. When you can’t pay the electric bill, everybody is Black in the dark.
As all Americans face the crisis of inflation on top of dramatic long-term increases in the cost of housing, health care, transportation, and education, most of us know that something isn’t working in our common life. By sending a plane full of asylum seekers to Massachusetts or an angry tweet about “intersectionality,” DeSantis hopes to deflect attention from the real issues of inequality that he has failed to address. We cannot let him. If he’s willing to close the classroom for all students, those who know our history must hold class in public on the lessons of our past.
DeSantis is not simply mimicking Trump. What he is doing has a history rooted in the so-called “positive polarization” of the white Southern strategy, developed in the 1960s to disrupt the political coalition that was built as masses of poor and low-wealth people joined people of conscience across the South. DeSantis has looked at the numbers and knows that if just a small percentage of poor and low wealth people who haven’t voted in recent years unite around policy and vote together to address the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, denial of health care, and the war economy, they can reshape the political electorate. This is far more than an attack on a course about history. DeSantis is vying for control of the Electoral College with the same playbook that has been used by every Republican presidential candidate since Nixon.
But the strategy he is using will hurt the very base he’s hoping to reach. After the Brown decision in 1954, which ordered US public schools to desegregate with “all deliberate speed,” Governor Harry Byrd of Virginia garnered national attention by announcing a campaign of “massive resistance.” Before he allowed white and Black students to attend the same schools, Byrd vowed, he would close every school. And he did—for a little while. But white parents in Virginia, whatever their thoughts about desegregation, quickly grew weary of having to figure out what to do with their children at home every day. Like George Wallace after him, Byrd had to face the political reality that racism, however well it plays with an angry white base, usually ends up hurting everyone—including white people—in practice.
Our history also makes clear that you can’t defeat the divide-and-conquer tactics of racism on their own terms. To build a multiracial democracy where everyone can do better, we need to expose the inequality that is ignored in most public fights about race. As the direct scapegoats of the lie of racial hierarchy, Black Americans know firsthand how the promises of democracy have been betrayed by the lies that pit Americans against one another. But Black, white, Asian, Latino, and Native Americans can learn from Black history how everyone suffers when leaders play to racial fears.
This is not the work of Black people alone. We know that the lie of race in America has only ever been interrupted when we join hands across racial divides and form fusion coalitions that keep our attention on the moral issues that every wedge issues is designed to distract us from. Most Americans understand that it is immoral for half of our population to be poor or low-income in the richest nation in the history of the world. It doesn’t have to be this way. When people form moral fusion coalitions and challenge the lies of politicians like DeSantis, we have the power not only to elect new leaders but also to change the debate about what’s at stake in public life. The question isn’t whether the College Board’s AP Black History course is “woke” but whether we, as a people, are awake enough to learn from our history and call DeSantis’s bluff.