Last week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called the thought police on college educators. The Chronicle of Higher Education published two articles revealing that the DeSantis administration demanded information—including employee titles and funding levels—on “programs and initiatives” focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion or “critical race theory” at Florida’s 12 public universities. DeSantis also appointed a group of right-wing ideologues to the New College of Florida’s board of trustees, including the anti–critical race theory and anti-LGBTQ propagandist Christopher Rufo, who admits to promoting disinformation campaigns and says he wants to “transform” New College by “recapturing higher education.”
DeSantis’s attacks on Florida institutions that stray from conservative orthodoxy have cost him in the past when prior attempts to dictate curriculum have been interrupted by the courts. In 2021, DeSantis tried to ban Florida faculty from testifying against the Republican Party’s voter suppression efforts, claiming that the testimony of faculty members as state employees could harm what Republicans apparently view as their state’s interest in denying ballot access. Refusing to take “that’s unconstitutional” for an answer, DeSantis followed up with what was dubbed the Stop Woke Act, which attempted to curtail discussions of race in colleges and universities. Issuing a temporary injunction against the act, a Florida judge called it “positively dystopian” and concluded that the governor’s attempt to control syllabi violates the First Amendment.
Last week’s announcements appear to be an attempt to circumvent unfavorable court rulings. PEN America’s Jeremy C. Young called the requests for funding levels a “witch hunt,” noting that the request appears pretextual and intended to scare ideological opponents rather than being a legitimate review of spending.
And as Don Moynihan, who holds the McCourt Chair at Georgetown’s School of Public Policy, notes, the impact of these attacks on higher education are already being felt. Uncertainty about the parameters of the funding requests and the hostile political environment is already depriving Florida’s college students of a factual education on racism. Professors are altering their teaching by canceling classes or avoiding controversial (but nonetheless accurate) information. And although it’s impossible to know exactly how many, some Florida faculty who teach about race and racism have left or are considering leaving the state.
There is no reason to trust either the ideas or the people that DeSantis is promoting. When asked to define “woke,” DeSantis’s lawyers called it the belief that there are “systemic injustices in American society” and there is a “need to address them.” Another word for believing in systemic inequality is “reality.” Few legitimate social scientists claim otherwise, as an overwhelming body of evidence supports structural accounts of racism. And Christopher Rufo is a former employee of the Discovery Institute, famous for its role in attempting to mainstream creationism as an alternative to evolutionary theory. Judging by their public statements, Rufo and these lawyers would struggle through introductory classes in sociology and biology and are unqualified to set educational policy.
The immediate effects of authoritarian attacks on higher education are disturbing and should be resisted. But if previous top-down attempts to suppress discussions of structural racism are any indication, the long-term impacts of attacks on race scholarship could do damage.
In From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Individuals in Midcentury America, Leah N. Gordon shows how the red scare and McCarthyism warped understandings of racism. Instead of seeing racism as systemic—something that shapes myriad institutions from housing access to schooling to health and life expectancy—most people thought of it as a negative individual trait. White Americans could reap the benefits of legalized racial discrimination while social-science theory assured them that, if they didn’t have hate in their heart, those benefits didn’t imply complicity. In a society that concentrated economic, political, and cultural power among white Americans, Gordon writes, “intercultural education was much easier to implement and much less controversial than changing discriminatory hiring practices, building new facilities, or reducing uneven patterns of overcrowding by integration.”
Like the contemporary attackers of critical race theory, McCarthyites linked structural accounts of racism to Marxism. McCarthyism suppressed the work of scholars who connected racial inequality to policy, political economics, and the law, while social scientists who wanted to remain in the mainstream adopted an apolitical, seemingly objective stance.
At the same time, McCarthyism imposed profound professional costs on scholars of color who refused to conform to dishonest demands from powerful politicians. W.E.B. Du Bois and Oliver Cromwell Cox, for instance, were sidelined and denied access to resources. Bowing to political pressure, the publisher of Cox’s groundbreaking Class, Caste, and Race refused to give the book a second printing. And colleagues shunned Du Bois, afraid that his accurate descriptions of structural racism would be deemed too radical.
Whether people understand racism as structural or individual affects public policy. If racism is a matter of law, political economy, and power, then remediation requires legal changes, equal economic opportunity, redistribution, and access to the ballot. But if racism is a matter of personal belief and faulty cognition, then changing hearts and minds through education could solve the problem. Gordon suggests that personal education, as opposed to structural interventions, won out as the accepted policy not because changing hearts and minds was the most effective—after all, DeSantis is a product of Yale and Harvard Law School—but because education was harder to oppose.
Gordon also speculates that one reason structural explanations of racism emerged so quickly during and after the civil rights movement is that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) kept insurgent perspectives alive. Organizers in the civil rights movement, who were often educated in HBCUs, used the openings created by the activism to mainstream concepts like institutional racism. Similarly, Black Lives Matter helped push debates over structural racism to the center of American politics. Conservatives’ moral panic over critical race theory and higher education more broadly can be traced to fear of reforms that challenge their power. Aspiring authoritarians are threatened by ideas that pierce the illusion that their power is just or eternal. White anxieties over critical race theory are a response to the calls for reform following George Floyd’s murder. Defunding the police and diversifying organizations are material interventions into structural racism that go beyond the superficial and ineffective color-blind polices of the right. DeSantis’s McCarthyism, like the older version, denies the reality of structural racism while working to ensure that said reality doesn’t change.
DeSantis claims that Florida is the “freest state in America.” But freedom to submit to state-mandated thought is no freedom at all.