As we enter Black History Month, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to curtail education on Black histories and those of other marginalized people is even more pernicious. The man who recently tweeted a photo and quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s “I Have a Dream” speech did an about-face mere days later by blocking a New College Board Advanced Placement course on African American studies. The course, which was slated to be a pilot in 60 Florida high schools, was rejected on the basis of violating the state laws DeSantis created that censor Black history and culture.
This is not DeSantis’ first foray into the culture war that has used the primary and secondary education system as its battleground. He has poured gasoline on the fires of bigotry, racism, transphobia and homophobia by establishing policies that censor and whitewash education. DeSantis has stated that the discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation is grooming. He claims that critical race theory is taught in a K-12 curriculum and that diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at public universities are pushing left-wing ideologies.
With the stroke of his pen, he has put these policies into law while proclaiming he is protecting our young people. But these orders are not about the well-being of our children. If they were, our elected officials would be focused on initiatives that truly keep our children safe, healthy and housed, especially amid several dismal state rankings across these metrics.
Florida ranks 35th in the nation for child well-being, according to the 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book, a 50-state report of household data developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that analyzes how children and families are faring. Among the four areas that make up the report, the state ranks 42nd for economic well-being, 35th for health, 32nd for family and community and 13th for education.
As a native Floridian, former high school teacher, a Black woman and a parent, I feel targeted, not protected. I am a proud recipient of Florida’s public education. However, even prior to these rigid and ill-informed restrictions, generations of students have learned from curricula that lacked information on diverse histories and cultures.
These draconian laws are pulling our state and society back in time even as our population grows increasingly diverse. Instead of providing our students with knowledge about the many cultures that have come together to make our nation what it is, we are erasing their histories, telling them they are unworthy, shameful and without merit.
These restrictions on education are an attempt to stifle discussion and undermine the lived experiences of people of color, despite recent studies that show that more than 60% of American parents want their kids to learn about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism. In addition to the direct effects of DeSantis’ laws, these directives have created a chilling effect. Florida educators are fearful, no doubt contributing to the state’s critical teacher shortage and preventing teachers from seeking the resources their classrooms and students need.
Most disheartening is that while these calculated and well-funded far-right ideas have broken through into mainstream discourse, there are limited coordinated counter-narratives standing up to defend diversity and truth. I am inspired by the actions of leaders such as attorney Benjamin Crump, who is willing to take legal action if the AP course does not make its way into classrooms; Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of the United Teachers of Dade, who condemned the rejection of the course; and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, who sent a letter to the College Board calling on it to preserve the fundamental right to an education that does not bow to the whims of the governor of Florida.
We must do more and we must do it together. Parents, community leaders, foundations, advocacy groups, racial justice organizations and grassroots organizers who are committed to ensuring our public school systems truly educate our children must lift up a compelling counter-narrative of what we gain when we embed the values of truth, inclusion and respect into every aspect of our education system.
Indeed, these values are the antidote to racism, bigotry and hate. We cannot let them fall to the wayside in this proxy battle. This will only happen if more people come together, stand up, raise our voices in the streets and the voting booths and invest in solutions to safeguard our democracy — a democracy intrinsically connected to the history we are taught in schools.
Kamali Burke is a vice president at Fenton, the largest full-service, public interest communications agency in the nation. She is a strategist for social change using media relations, branding, project management and strategic communications to drive movements and build political will.