Enforcing ‘Stop Woke’
Terry H. Schwadron
April 28, 2022
Even this first week since Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., signed his “Stop Woke Act” to let parents, workers, anyone feeling bad about the way that race, history, gender is taught or practiced in the workplace, it’s clear that overbroad language is both hypocritical and bad policy.
The law — the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act — prohibits workplace training or school instruction — from elementary school years through college — that suggests that individuals are “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
Further, it bars teachings or practices that people are privileged or oppressed based on race, gender, or national origin or that a person “bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” over actions committed in the past by members of the same race, gender, or national origin.
The law says such trainings or lessons amount to discrimination.
The practical effect is to send icy chills through public school teaching ranks and challenge private business practices to conduct diversity training or inclusion initiatives.
Besides its obvious bias to reject teachings about questions of race and identity, two things are clear.
· There already are court challenges in the works on constitutional grounds that include the same freedom of speech clauses that DeSantis wants to use to promote parental rights towards schools.
· The law as it stands relies on vigilante enforcement by individuals who want to claim grievance over feelings. How that passes either as public policy or an enforceable law is a mystery.
This is political theater, apparently meant to promote DeSantis as the inheritor of MAGA leadership and cements him as a leading alternative to Donald Trump for Republican leadership.
It is thinking that relies on anti-historical, anti-realistic interpretation that insists that Americans bear no responsibility for the long-term effects of racism and slavery. It reflects reasoning that belies its own words, pressing the case that the feelings of white, Christian Americans matter more than those of Black Americans or gays, transgender people, Native Americans or Jews and Muslims.
In schools, the governor’s own statements outline an argument that teachers can still teach the fact of slavery, the civil rights movement or the Holocaust but omit any of the legal, economic, cultural questions that these historical eras have had on our society in general. In his comments on the bill signing, DeSantis references the potential indoctrination of five-year-olds, but never addresses the breadth of this bill to reach into Florida’s colleges and universities or its business workplaces.
The sole message is that Florida taxes should not underwrite teachings or trainings that make white people feel guilt for past American sins.
Even cursory analysis shows this legislation is similar to Trump’s 2020 Executive Order which was issued to “combat offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping” and stop “divisive concepts” covered in workplace trainings. Various challenges resulted in a federal court injunction to prevent enforcement before Joe Biden revoked the executive order upon entering office.
While state officials do have the power to set curriculums for K-12 schools, it is unclear that there is any right, to say nothing of expertise, to set university curricula or to tell a private employer what it can or cannot do.
The Legal Issues
Legally, what the law does is to lift civil liability for schools and businesses, making them subject to lawsuit.
Much like the Texas law on abortion, Florida now has handed enforcement over to the public rather than addressing the responsibility of making its own law work. Employees who win a lawsuit based on Florida Civil Rights Act claims are entitled to recover their attorney’s fees as an incentive; we should expect that companies will be reviewing their policies and training about diversity.
There is nothing in this bill that would incent minority workers or gays to find that employer practices promote the superiority or privilege of a majority society.
“No one should be instructed to feel as if they are not equal or shamed because of their race,” DeSantis said. “In Florida, we will not let the far-left woke agenda take over our schools and workplaces. There is no place for indoctrination or discrimination in Florida.”
Enforcement here is vigilantism by any name. It is promotion of racial fear.
Until now, the Republican-majority Florida state legislature has targeted education practices affecting our youngest students, kindergarten through third grade. Those moves have barred the teaching of critical race theory to explore how institutions perpetuate racism (this is not taught in K-12 schools), to bar particular books, including math textbooks, to target the Disney company for speaking out against the laws.
But this law targets colleges and businesses, institutions where academic staff, workers and students are adults and supposed to engage in critical thinking, whether about race, identity or a wide swath of other issues, including political science. The spirit of the law, if not the direct language, abridges freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the very tenets of higher education.
The argument that the teachings “may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view” makes a mockery of what college is all about, for openers, and puts the state’s choices for training inside private businesses.
It’s a nutty attempt to whitewash history for the advancement of a partisan political party.
Moreover, the law is vague, unfair and unenforceable, which is why the state is turning over enforcement to voters made angry by the very politically indoctrinating arguments that this law says it wants to eliminate.
DeSantis may be successfully promoting himself in this law and others he is writing for more centralized control over how we live and how we can — or cannot — vote. This is a law by which he should be judged as a candidate.