Many Republicans have become invested in enforcing a white supremacist backlash in their states’ education system, but perhaps none so much as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
As dozens of bills are advancing in statehouses nationwide to ban the teaching of the basic truths of America’s racist history, DeSantis signed a bill into law this week that threatens to surveil and cut funding to public institutions of higher learning found to be on the wrong side of the Republicans’ ongoing white nationalist crusade.
DeSantis said institutions found to be “indoctrinating” students risk losing crucial state funding.
Unlike much of the paranoiac legislation, like bills signed into law in Idaho and Texas — and in consideration in other places — the new Florida law does not deploy the right-wing canard of “critical race theory.” DeSantis signed a law that was written in the vaguest terms but was all too clear, given the current context, in its intent.
The law will require public universities and colleges to survey students, faculty, and staff about their beliefs and viewpoints. The governor and the bill’s lead sponsor, Florida state Sen. Ray Rodrigues, said the effort aims to support “intellectual diversity.” Though no mention of it is made in the law, DeSantis and Rodrigues said institutions found to be “indoctrinating” students risk losing crucial state funding.
There can be no doubt about what ideas DeSantis considers to be worthy of concern: Universities that take up the necessary work of challenging hegemonic racial capitalism and patriarchy are in the legislation’s crosshairs.
The legislation has been condemned as both McCarthyite and rife for dangerous censorship — a hypocritical affront to free speech and intellectual freedom. It is all these things. In decrying the authoritarian bent of the law, however, we must also be clear about which authority is being enforced: This law is about defending white standing.
Under the measure, the state university system’s Board of Governors and the State Board of Education will be required to choose or create an allegedly “objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey.” The bill offers no specifics on who can use the survey’s data and for what purpose, nor does it offer assurance of anonymity for the respondents.
DeSantis described the measure as a prevention against public universities becoming “hotbeds for stale ideology.” When right wingers speak of “ideology,” they, of course, mean only anti-racist, leftist, queer, and feminist thought. Yet the notion that universities in this country are left-wing, anti-racist institutions is laughable; as historian Asheesh Kapur Siddique wrote recently in Teen Vogue, “The modern American university is a right-wing institution” — replete with corporate governance and aimed at capital accumulation.
Kapur Siddique noted that “gauging political preferences of employees is an impoverished way of understanding the ideology of an institution. To actually do so, you must look at who runs it.” Meanwhile, forcefully surveilling student and faculty political views is a reliable way to weaponize public universities in the right’s cynical culture war.
Following the introduction in Idaho of a bill to ban anti-racist, anti-sexist education, I argued that we are not simply observing conservative reaction to “woke” liberal overreach, but a white supremacist retaliation to an upsurge in Black liberation struggle. GOP attacks on education are the latest chapter in a long American history of what Cedric Robinson, in describing the post-Reconstruction era, called “the rewhitening of America” — a legacy of grimly successful anti-Black backlashes.
The Idaho Senate also recently voted to cut $409,000 from Boise State University’s budget, the precise amount that the school spends on social justice programs. In Florida, DeSantis’s latest move is explicit in its intention to use taxpayer money as a political cudgel.
The hypocrisy of the governor threatening and policing speech in universities in the name of a “diversity of ideas” is brazen — I’ve no doubt this is not lost on the fascistic architects of the current right-wing attack on education. We can’t feign surprise at politicians cynically generating populist fervor. The problem isn’t that the fascists are hypocrites, it’s that they’re fascists.