By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his handpicked state Board of Education knew exactly what they were doing when they tried to put a pretty face on slavery.
In fact, DeSantis tipped his hand in his angry retort to damp down the firestorm over his and the board’s beyond ludicrous contention that slavery provided beneficial skills to enslaved Blacks. He again referred to the teaching of the monstrous history of slavery as another example of “liberal indoctrination.”
Translated: DeSantis and the right’s warped, skewed ideological agenda is to dismiss any talk, let alone teaching, of systemic racism as the major cause of Black suffering in America.
DeSantis and his hard right company know that any mention of slavery in just about any context is a sure-fire trigger for heated debate. The fiery back and forth between critics and backers of slavery reparations is a near textbook example of how an issue can work up a crowd to fever pitch.
Slavery fits squarely in the category of an inherently controversial and polarizing issue. So DeSantis dredged it up, put a positive spin on it and then went after his real target — the issue of teaching critical race theory in schools.
As I have repeatedly pointed out, only a minuscule number of school districts nationally, mostly in majority minority cities such as Chicago and Atlanta, make any nod to the emphasis on the role of race and racism as drivers of the historic oppression of Blacks and minorities in America. But even this is too much for DeSantis and his pack of right, mostly Republican, attackers.
At last count nearly 200 right-wing think tanks, advocacy groups and parent groups have railed against teaching critical race theory in schools. Fox News predictably has been on a virtual nonstop crusade against anything that remotely smacks of critical race theory in the schools.
The strawman issue was created as yet another hammer to browbeat, cow and intimidate school boards, whip up fury among the Republican Party’s conservative base, and most importantly pile drive Democrats with the usual falsehood that they are trying to shove racial guilt down white people’s throats.
Let’s be clear. There’s nothing new about the term critical race theory. The term goes back almost four decades.
Then, a handful of Black scholars and writers came up with the term to name what for decades had simply been called battling racism. The reaction at first was really no reaction. It seemed a puzzling, overloaded and very academic term that was subject to just about any meaning and interpretation. President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 changed that.
He publicly demanded a cease and desist to any school district and/or teacher that dared stuff students with what he branded “left-wing indoctrination.” In plain English, he meant any mention of the pernicious history of racial bias in America.
Trump railed that this fanned the very racism that America had supposedly long gotten past. Worse, it scapegoated whites as the perennial bad guys for all of America’s racial sins. Trump followed his diatribe with an executive order that virtually wiped out any diversity training for federal employees.
The great fear of the conservative attackers, though, is not that teaching about America’s past and present history of racial and social injustice will poison the minds of minority students but that that it could seep into curriculums and presentations to influence a lot of white elementary and high schoolers. This could have a far-reaching political consequence in that it could decrease the generational racial polarization that the GOP banks on to maintain political power and control in a nation that is on the verge of becoming an ethnic minority-majority nation.
The wide body of race studies has been a staple in fields such as the humanities, the social sciences and teacher education.
The counterattack against critical race theory uses the same game plan used to oppose or roll back every past civil rights act, voting rights act and affirmative action plans. Indeed anything in law and public policy that even smacks of race is always under conservative fire.
Critical race theory opponents have latched onto and shamelessly mangled the color-blind mythology that any talk of racial bigotry and bias and its continued devastating impact on American society is racism.
DeSantis and the right are on a twofold mission. One is to ensure that any talk of systemic racism, let alone teaching of its continuing devastating impact on Blacks, be banned everywhere.
Their even more insidious mission is to use this as a strawman issue to inflame and energize the Republican base. Lying about the alleged benign aspect of slavery is simply another convenient ploy to fulfill that mission.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is “Who Says Slavery Wasn’t Beneficial” (Middle Passage Press). He also is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.