On Thursday, Florida’s State Board of Education voted unanimously, at the behest of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, to ban lessons that employ critical race theory (CRT) or the New York Times’ 1619 Project from schools. The vote aligns with initiatives in several other states such as Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Iowa.
Florida’s amendment takes an existing rule saying instruction “may not suppress or distort significant historical events, such as the Holocaust” and adds “slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and the contributions of women, African American and Hispanic people to our country.” The new language continues:
Examples of theories that distort historical events and are inconsistent with State Board approved standards include the denial or minimization of the Holocaust, and the teaching of Critical Race Theory, meaning the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons. Instruction may not utilize material from the 1619 Project[.]
Even as it bans specific themes and texts, though, Florida’s amendment doesn’t define exactly which historical or factual claims are off-limits.
CRT is a decades-old set of ideas from the legal academy, which began to be a low-grade source of right-wing panic about racism during the Obama administration. Since the anti-racism protests of 2020 and the end of the Trump administration, though, it has rapidly become an all-purpose term to attack any sort of discussion of the history or current conditions of racial inequity in America.
Nothing academically recognizable as critical race theory is currently being taught anywhere in Florida, according to officials who spoke with the Miami Herald. Yet DeSantis has continued his campaign against it anyway, telling reporters last month: “You teach the facts. You teach everything that has happened. But critical race theory is basically race essentialism. It teaches people to view that as the most important characteristic and obviously, if you are of certain races—Caucasian or whatnot—they view that in a negative light.”
By “essentialism,” DeSantis is equating the racist theory that people are by nature made unequal according to their race with the anti-racist premise that America’s legacy of racism is so ingrained in its legal system and policies that its effects remain inescapable for Black folks and people of color. As reporter Adam Harris noted in The Atlantic, scholars have begun to apply the latter analysis to other areas where inequality is visible, such as housing policy or the role of racism in medicine. What’s been gathered—or shoved—under the umbrella of CRT is a burgeoning push to incorporate and prioritize anti-racism in a slew of academic teachings, most prominently the teaching of American history.
As the Florida law demonstrates, the goal of the anti-CRT effort is put the analysis of ongoing racism out of bounds—to treat any inquiry into the material inequities that define the color line in America as something equivalent to Holocaust denial, and to reframe discussion of ongoing injustice as an insult to “white persons.” Other campaigners go as far to equate CRT with Marxism, as if a true accounting of racism in America were somehow going to upend capitalism. Such intentional misreadings allow conservatives to create a dichotomy where considering how racism shaped the country is unpatriotic and anti-American.
The crusade DeSantis is promoting is one based on generalities—on a vague and all-encompassing political boogeyman. He is operating in the American tradition of conjuring an enemy without grounding it, so it reigns free, amorphous, embodying whomever’s worst nightmare. Throughout American history, the political boogeyman has come and gone. It exists currently in conservative panic around critical race theory.