Using the term “war on FILL IN THE BLANK” is cliche, I know, but the governor of Florida’s “war” on the honest and objective teaching of American history is abhorrent. Let’s get this straight: Learning about slavery won’t make white kids feel guilty, which is what Ron Desantis and his colleagues in the Trump/MAGA community want their followers to believe. And even if it did, is that really a bad thing?
They aren’t afraid of “wokeness” because of “white guilt.” They want to stop “wokeness” because they are terrified that their white supporters––whom they’ve convinced are better than people of color, and anyone less disadvantaged than themselves—will realize that the systemic racism that has polluted our local, state, and federal governmental policies for centuries, ultimately, hurts THEM, too.
These anti-“woke” policies are more like the “stop sticks” used by law enforcement to end high-speed car chases by destroying the tires of a fleeing suspect’s vehicle. They are a means by which conservatives work to prevent the passage of any progressive legislation meant to ensure that every American gets their fair share of upward mobility and other public resources, regardless of skin color, economic background, or social status.
That outcome, I believe, is what is most frightening for Desantis and his ilk, which, let’s face it, encompasses not just the far-far-right Republicans, but also some right-of-center Democrats. Racism crosses all facets of American society; it needs oxygen from all sides to stay alive.
And none of it, really, has anything to do with guilt on the part of the average white American citizen.
The goal is to keep those “average white Americans” from learning the truth: That systemic racism affects poor and disadvantaged whites almost on the same scale as it affects Blacks and other people of color. It always has, and it always will. During the pre-Civil War years, white plantation owners convinced their poorer white kin and neighbors that Blacks were below them. They were so convinced that they gladly went to battle to fight for the Confederacy.
But for what? Slavery gave nothing to the lower class of whites in the South. Plantation owners had all the benefits; they owned all of the best land, millions of acres of it. By using forced, unpaid labor, they could amass more and more wealth that growing cotton, tobacco, and other commodities could bring. They even shut out less-advantaged whites from working in their factories, or from opportunities to earn their own fortunes as carpenters and other skilled tradesmen. By oppressing Blacks, the white Southern aristocracy also oppressed their own––keeping them from attaining their own economic wealth, which is the ultimate promise of the so-called American Dream. Those plantation mansions, the buildings housing town, city, and state governments––and even federal government buildings––were not built by white tradesmen who were paid wages. They were built by the sweat and blood of the enslaved.
The institution of slavery only guaranteed that the white Americans employing it would be the only ones to enjoy the immeasurable wealth it allowed them.
When I finally recognized and understood this premise, I found it astounding. Please believe me when I say, though, that equating racism with hurting white people as well as people of color does not, in any way, dismiss or reduce for me the pain and suffering that Blacks have had to endure since their ancestors were brought against their will as human chattel to American shores.
Rather, knowing that it hurts all of us, to me, puts it all into perspective.
The "Zero-Sum" Paradigm
In her book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” Heather McGhee explains the concept of the “zero-sum paradigm,” the idea that when black and brown people are able to access social services, better jobs with better pay, affordable housing, or increased opportunity to enroll in college, white people lose something. Because none of this is a “pie.”
Giving more to one group of people doesn’t mean that other groups will get less than they had before, or that they will lose anything. Quite the contrary: Denying one group of people the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities, is what costs the other groups the loss of those same rights, freedoms, and opportunities.
McGhee bases this concept on our own history. Her prime example revolves around the ripple effects that came from the response by many municipalities across the United States to laws forcing the desegregation of community swimming pools. As a guest on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2021, McGhee talks about when, in 1959, the city of Montgomery, Alabama, closed down its entire parks and recreation department rather than allowing Blacks to enjoy these facilities alongside whites.
“I went to Montgomery, Ala., where there used to be one of those grand resort-style pools … not only did they back a truck up and pour dirt into the pool and pave it over [in 1959], but they also sold off the animals in the municipal zoo,” she told host Dave Davies. “It wasn't until almost 1970 that they reopened the park system for the entire city. And I walked the grounds of Oak Park. Even after they reopened it, they never rebuilt the pool.”
Closing municipal swimming pools didn’t just deny Blacks of the opportunity to enjoy them during the heat of summer; closing them denied everyone that opportunity, except those wealthy enough to build pools in their own backyards or at their country clubs.
McGhee added that she saw this “as a tangible symbol of the way a population taught to distrust and disdain their neighbors of color will withdraw from public goods when they no longer see the public good.”
In my mind, Florida’s effort to eradicate Advanced Placement (AP) courses offered to high school students falls in with McGhee’s “zero-sum” theory. Not only does Desantis want to eliminate these courses, he also wants to remove the college credit that is given to students who have successfully completed them.
This means all Florida students, regardless of color or economic background, will lose those credits— credits that provide all students the opportunity to earn college degrees in less time and for less money by earning college credits before they graduate high school.
Can We Stop 'Stop Woke' and Other Oppressive Policies?
“Stop Woke” is, at its root, just a ploy to keep everyone blissfully ignorant of the harm that “zero-sum” policies and laws inflict on everyone, not just those who are the targets of unbridled racism.
Refusing to accept our nation’s history, warts and all, does nothing to help anyone. It does not prevent the feeling of guilt; what it does prevent is for the average American to never gain a true perspective of the sins of our forefathers that would lead to understanding just exactly what systemic racism is, that it exists, and that it is the cause for such economic disparity between whites and people of color. Because it would force us all to see that everything we do has consequences for all Americans, regardless of color, background, education, or social standing.
How do we reverse this trend to “stop woke”? We vote. We pay attention to the proposed new laws or amendments on the ballots in state, local, and federal elections; we pay attention to and take note of the candidates who have a track record of racist and segregationist policies, and those who seem to emulate them. Progressives generally are less toxic in their messaging but also seem to avoid pointing out the flawed thinking of people in and out of government who espouse, promote, or actively support white supremacy.
We have to vote. We have to make our voices, our positions, not just heard, but outlined at a level in which everyone can understand and comprehend what we ALL lose if these people continue to spread their hate and make it acceptible to spew out in front of the media and in public. We need to drive it back underground. It will never go away, but these people are NOT the majority. And Democracy dies if we allow the minority to rule. Because they won’t stop until they completely destroy everything the Founding Fathers, whom they claim to revere, intended for this wonderful experiment we call the United States of America.
All the tools you need, no matter where you live in the U.S., can be found here at vote.gov.