SB 148 and the Assault On Teaching Black History

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Florida’s SB 148 represents the surging wave of white supremacist fascism sweeping across the country. Entitled “An Act Relating to Individual Freedom,” it symbolizes the deceptive, authoritarian, and racist motivations that characterize the white nationalist Republican Party. By making the encouragement of patriotism the main purpose of classroom instruction it reduces the teaching of history to indoctrination.

SB 148 would censor criticism of the US’s racial policies and practices and center the “importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.” And, most perniciously, it opens the doors for individuals to sue boards of education, municipal and state agencies, and private businesses that violate SB 148’s restrictions on academic freedom.

It’s important to trace SB 148’s genealogy as well as locate it in its sociohistorical context. At the urging of Governor Ron DeSantis, on June 10, 2021 State Board of Education member Tom Grady proposed Rule 6A-1.094124, “Required Instruction Planning and Reporting.” Section 2(b) declared Critical Race Theory (CRT) a theory that “distorts” US history. What is CRT’s alleged distortion? The right is irked by CRT’s definition of “racism” as “not merely the product of prejudice,” that is of individuals. Instead, CRT posits racism is structural, “embedded in American society and its legal systems” for the purpose of sustaining white supremacy. The new regulation also bans the use of material from the 1619 Project. In contrast, it requires teachers to present the United States as “the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” That is, SB 148 minimizes the role of racial slavery in the US’s political economy, law, and construction of national consciousness.

In mid-December, DeSantis introduced SB 148’s predecessor, the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E.) Act. DeSantis’s falsely named bill was designed to codify Rule 6A-1.094124 and extend its gag rule to universities and colleges, state agencies, and corporations. It’s most illiberal and chilling proposal was its provision for “consequences.” It would provide “employees, parents, and students a private right to action”—individuals could sue educational institutions, agencies, and corporation that violated its terms.

SB 148 emerges from a conservative movement and climate that transcends Florida. During the first nine months of 2021, authoritarian activists introduced 54 similar bills in 24 state legislatures. Overall, Education Week reports that 37 states have proposed or enacted legislation to “limit how teachers discuss racism and sexism.” Florida is one of nine states in which right-wing parents have led protests to ban books largely concerned with race and LGBTQ+ identities and issues.

This is not the first time conservative advocacy groups have assailed teachers’ constitutional right to academic freedom. The mid-1970s and ’80s witnessed a previous surge of book bannings and burnings. However, that era’s assault on knowledge differed from today’s. Then Evangelical fundamentalists like the Moral Majority fixed their ire on works they decried as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” Race and the examination of racial oppression is the focus of today’s fascists.

Moreover, the illiberal assault on public education is part of the fascist response to changing demographics and an upsurge of the Black liberation movement. After the 2015 massacre of nine Black parishioners at Mother Emmanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, African American-led struggles to remove Confederate statues exploded throughout the empire. By 2019, youth from the darker peoples composed 43 percent of K-12 students. Under pressure from changing demographics and Black activists, school districts began revising their curricula to better reflect their student populations. Former President Donald Trump’s mischaracterization of CRT and the 1619 Project in his misleadingly named “Executive Order on Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping” mobilized right-wing advocacy groups and racist white parents. The George Floyd uprisings during the summer of 2020 rocked the empire but predictably elicited a backlash—or whitelash.

The force of these events tilted the empire’s ideological foundation. That summer, for a fleeting moment, the Black liberation movement seemed to reshape the empire’s understanding of and concern for racial oppression. For the briefest time, the US public appeared to accept the concept of structural or systemic racism.

In response, the Right mounted a multifaceted campaign to conserve racial inequities on four fronts. One concerned reversing efforts for greater police accountability. Indeed, groups like Back the Blue have worked to remove the new restrictions on use of force, increase surveillance, and argue for a return to the days of unbridled repression. The attack on voting rights escalated as conservatives increased their efforts to suppress the vote of the darker peoples. And education emerged as a third site of struggle, but with two focal points. One sought to preserve Confederate monuments. The other aimed at outlawing CRT and the 1619 Project, banning books, and harassing and physically attacking progressive school board members. These are the consequences of the Right’s exercise of their “legitimate political discourse.”

Like the Republican National Committee, the fascists fighting to restrict the teaching of Black history use deceptive language. The prima facie example is the title Senator Henry Diaz, Jr. gave his bill, “An Act Relating to Individual Freedom.” Instead of promoting academic freedom, erected on evidence-based teaching, and “the values of free speech and open inquiry,” SB 148 uses the language of inclusion to constrict historical investigation.

SB 148 legislates a childish understanding of history. It fallaciously declares that US history should be presented “as factual, not as constructed.” Professional historians recognize that we select the “facts” from fragmentary evidence and reconstruct them into a narrative account of the past. Therefore, when new sources are uncovered or when we create new methodologies and interpretative frameworks, we often change our interpretations.

Before the 1970s, the Ulrich B. Phillips school of historians dominated the study of American slavery. Adherents to the Phillips school based their interpretation on records produced by slaveholders—autobiographies, diaries, memoirs, plantation records, etc. They declared the slave narratives and the Works Progress Administration’s interviews with ex-bondsmen and women unreliable. They also completely ignored the folktales, songs, and cultural artifacts left by the enslaved. Consequently, the Phillips school described slavery as benign and the enslaved as docile and content.

Since the late sixties slavery scholars have studied enslavement through the lens of the enslaved. These sources tell a drastically different story. They present slavery as a cruel, exploitative and brutal. In their view white slaveholders were aggressive, mean, and greedy. The new slavery studies stressed the survival of African cultural traditions, highlighted persistent “day-to-day resistance,” and documented hundreds of rebellions. Facts do not speak for themselves; they must be explained. In doing so, professional historians reconstruct the fragments of the past they have selected into the best chronology and explanation they can.

Under SB 148, I would not be able to begin my African American survey history class by introducing students to the fact that enslaved Africans fought with the British in both the War of Independence and the War of 1814. After providing them with the statistical data and autobiographical sketches, I ask if they consider the Africans traitors, patriots, or something else. The answer turns on the fact Africans were enslaved, and the British offered them freedom. Acting in their own interest, they fought against “the creation of a new nation.” SB 148 would prevent this type of discussion.

Legislation like SB 148 prescribes indoctrination in US patriotism. It prevents engaging students in questioning historic and contemporary racial, class, gender and sexuality hierarchies. And most importantly, legislation like SB 148 and efforts to ban and burn books are integral parts of a fascist agenda that includes voter suppression and the unleashing of even greater police terror.

Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua is a Black/Africana Studies scholar-activist who uses historical methodologies. He teaches in the departments of African American Studies and History at UIUC. He has been engaged with local and national Black liberation movement organizations since his teen years; he is currently an organizer for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM).

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