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DeSantis, Cowardice and the Fear of Others
It's no show of strength to deny people the ability to think for themselves and learn their own history. It's an expression of fear.
The authoritarian strongman types want us to believe in their power. They may even want us to think that their power is divinely influenced, a sign that they’re not like the rest of us, but better. Look no further than the surreal video released just weeks before the Florida gubernatorial election, complete with Voice of God-style narration and mad text about how Ron DeSantis is the fulfillment of God’s plan for a protector and a fighter. It was enough to rile the vile Donald Trump into testing out a nickname for his rival—Ron Sanctimonious, as in morally superior. (Count me among those who doubt that Trump came up with this five-dollar word himself.)
It’s reasonable to assess the planned ban by DeSantis and the Florida Board of Education of the Advanced Placement African American Studies course for high school students—insisting it “significantly lacks educational value”—as an expression of white supremacism and an attempt to appeal to the racist base, turn back the clock and burnish the governor’s reputation as a strongman driven by cruelty and violence. This is far from the first time. It was apparent when pushing his “anti-woke” agenda, his nasty project of flying refugees to Martha’s Vineyard in sub-freezing weather without proper clothing and his bullying behavior toward high school students protecting themselves by wearing masks.
But as unsurprising as is the ban on this course dismissed as “indoctrination”—and now stripped by the College Board of many Black writers and writing connected to “critical race theory”— and as much as this likely presidential candidate is showing off that he won’t tolerate Floridians engaging in the critical study of slavery, institutional racism and their consequences, it strikes me that what DeSantis is showcasing is his cowardice and his fear of others.
Would a courageous man fear sharing the tragic history of his country? Would such a man feel the need to silence the viewpoints of those grappling with this complicated history? Would a genuinely strong man take pleasure in denying intellectually mature young people the opportunity to know their history, explore its meaning, debate with each other and even take pride in the progress that has been made from that dismal past?
Or is it a weak man, a cowardly man, who fears others that disagree with him, who is determined to stifle honest dialogue, and who doubts the capacity of young people to engage painful ideas and realities and reach reasonable conclusions about what it all means? Is it not a weak and cowardly man who feels the need to protect those of his own race from the hard truths of the past?
Much has been made this week of the fact that the murder of Tyre Nichols happened in the same city where Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered 55 years ago. And as much as some have minimized the role of race in the heinous, deadly beating of Nichols because the five cops involved were Black, you have to wonder about their education in African American history and the continuing reality of systemic racism. If they had been the recipients of an AP course reflecting on the history of racism and white supremacy, would they have been less likely to participate in their intolerable act of Black on Black murder? Would they then be more capable of grasping the profoundly broken system within which they are ensnared?
There are others, more learned than me, more possessed of life experience, who are better able to answer these questions. I urge you to consider the wise words of Jelani Cobb, reflecting on the color of the cops in the latest issue of The New Yorker:
Seemingly few Black people have harbored the delusion that white people are the sole vectors of white supremacy. In 1897, W. E. B. Du Bois noted that among the most corrosive effects of racism was its tendency to make its victims see themselves through the eyes of people who hold them in contempt. When the Black-nationalist firebrand Marcus Garvey gave rise to the ‘Black is beautiful’ movement, a century ago, he wasn’t trying to convince white people; he was addressing Black people who had never considered the possibility that those two adjectives could coexist.
Noting several social science studies that found implicit anti-Black bias—white and Black children preferring white dolls over Black dolls—Cobb concluded: “The notion that racism is exiled to the periphery of Black environments is a misconception. The most pernicious effects of American racism were to be seen in what happened in the absence of white people, not in their presence.”
A coward like Ron DeSantis can take pleasure in protecting white people from the discomfort of confronting and understanding the truth of American history. But in so doing, in showcasing his fear of others, he’s helping to perpetuate the myths that leave all of us—white and Black, old and young—trapped in a cesspool of misunderstanding and hate.
No one can say whether the circumstances that have led to the death of Tyre Nichols and so many others could have been avoided by studying the demanding topics found in an AP course on African American history, maybe especially given the historic failures of American policing and the violent dynamics of mob mentality. But there’s little doubt that the failure to advance the truths of our history is not only an act of weakness and fear, but certain to result in more unnecessary pain and murder.
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