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Gov. DeSantis wins the battle to ban critical race theory, but loses the war on history

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George Oliver III

Guest Commentator

Friday, June 25, 2021

Gov. DeSantis wins the battle to ban critical race theory, but loses the war on history

Boardman Robinson, courtesy Library of Congress

Educators should be able to teach about all the moments of our history, whether momentous or barbaric, with a clear eye and an open mind.

If you’re familiar with the motto “An unjust law is no law at all” (originated by St. Augustine, used by St. Thomas Aquinas and quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”), you might compare it to the new rule that Florida recently adopted that would preclude public schools from teaching critical race theory.

Gov. Ron DeSantis led the charge to force this unjust rule upon Florida educators in an effort “to prevent history that would denigrate the Founding Fathers” from being taught in state classrooms, as he told the Florida Board of Education in a video address before its vote adopting the rule. It’s worth noting, as the Tampa Bay Times did, that DeSantis couldn’t get Florida legislators to go along with his multimillion-dollar civics education overhaul during the legislative session, which is why he’s done this end run with the Board of Education.

As an Ocoee city commissioner and educator in the Orange County public schools system, I find this offensive. Critical race theory is a decades-old idea and practice that describes how racism and inequality are entrenched across all systems and institutions in American life.

History is about studying and learning about the transformation of societies and civilizations and our changing identity. It is about understanding the diverse cultures, experiences, ideas and moments that shape our relationships as we grapple with current and future questions and concerns. We are able to — and should — teach about all the consequential moments of our history, whether good or bad, whether momentous or barbaric with a clear mind, eye and heart.

As many as 19 states — including Florida in 1994 — instituted formal education programs to teach the Holocaust as part of their secondary school curricula. Now, imagine a bill was introduced, which minimized, watered down or forbade the teaching of such an atrocity that eradicated more than 12 million humans — Jews, Roma, homosexuals, political prisoners, and the mentally and physically disabled, among others — because we didn’t want to offend another group. The overwhelming majority of Americans would be appalled by such a proposal.

Yet that is exactly what DeSantis and the Board of Education are doing. In denying American history as experienced by African-Americans and other ethnic groups, DeSantis adopts a tactic directly from the Jim Crow playbook, whitewashing history and trying to convince the good folks of Florida that there are no problems regarding race, diversity and the inclusion of differing perspectives in our education system.

Knowledge is powerful. DeSantis and other Republican lawmakers have latched onto critical race theory as a reason to deprive Florida students from turning a wide lens on America’s sometimes brutal, bloody history. The governor contends that teaching history as anything that deviates from the “universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence” will indoctrinate our children into an anti-America faction, intent on destroying our country. That’s the same reasoning slavers forbade teaching enslaved people how to read and write, afraid their enslaved populations would rise up against them.

Knowledge does bring change. It causes people to question the status quo and push for better. Just look at the massive demonstrations for change that the world saw after Darnella Frazier's video of George Floyd’s murder.

I asked several of my colleagues what they thought after the governor signed this rule. They said the governor got this wrong. However, they also noted that resourceful history and social studies teachers will find ways to incorporate multiple perspectives on history into their lesson plans despite the new rule. They’ll explain Manifest Destiny, the Indian Removal Act, and the Trail of Tears. They’ll connect the Covid-19 anti-Asian hate incidents of today with its antecedents like the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment during WWII. They’ll teach about slavery and how its after-effects still permeate society, leading to the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter. Without a thorough understanding of American history, of poll taxes, literacy tests and of the closing of polling places in predominantly Black areas, how would Florida students make the connections to see that the voting law, which Republican lawmakers recently passed in the name of “election security,” is voter suppression in different garb? Of course, DeSantis doesn’t want students and future voters picking up on that.

But knowledge and truth always find a way. Absent classroom instruction on the Tulsa Race Massacre ahead of the 100th anniversary, it was TikTokers who stepped in to fill the void with hundreds of videos (#tulsamassacre). DeSantis may have banned classroom instruction, but he can’t stop students from learning.

George Oliver III is the City Commissioner for Ocoee’s District 4 and a teacher at Horizon West Middle School.

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