Delighting in division
Much of American history is entangled with racism and white supremacy. That is the reality of our beloved nation, no matter how much we wish it were not.
As we sit here nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century, it is obvious that we need to have the maturity to look back to our past as well as ahead to the future. Can we do this with our eyes wide open? Will we study and learn from the lessons of history?
You can't grapple with the truth if you hide it from view. Yes, our national narrative is an inspiring one — of freedom, rights, and new opportunities. But it is also a narrative of pain — of the bondage, rape, and murder of enslaved people. It is a story of mass death, broken treaties, and land stolen from Native people. And it is a story of persecution of the “other,” time and again.
The chasm between the noble promises of our founding documents and our historical realities continues to obstruct our national journey toward a more perfect union.
Yes, ours is a country that has facilitated exploration, innovation, and growth, but it is also one built upon families torn apart at the auction block, bodies whipped, and police dogs and fire hoses set against children.
Cities were redlined. Public schools were segregated. And despite our carefully cultivated national image as a meritocracy, throughout our history we have seen talent overlooked and our common humanity diminished on account of people’s race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation.
The ripples of injustice continue to destabilize our society.
It shouldn’t be controversial to say any of this. But acknowledging these truths today is a political act, because it threatens the privileged narratives of those who seek to sugarcoat our past. These are men and women who serve their own ambitions by fortifying their cynical holds on power, delighting in division, feeding off fear, and applauding anger.
And that brings us to Florida's Governor Ron DeSantis.
Listing all of his efforts to leverage the power of his office to attack equity, empathy, and justice would stretch this post immeasurably. But doing so would also jeopardize the central point: DeSantis is an opportunist. He is not weighing the merits of any one campaign. Rather, he wants headlines as a culture warrior standing up to “wokeness,” a term he has eagerly redefined to suit his own purposes. It allows him to sneer at and dismiss any attempt to reckon with American injustice.
DeSantis has focused his assaults on two of our society's most traditionally marginalized groups: Black Americans and the LGBTQ community. While these populations have thus far felt the brunt of his targeting, we need to see clearly that his rhetoric is a threat to all who care about a democratic, peaceful, empathetic, and just America. Those of us with the greatest privilege should bear a special burden in rejecting this hate.
DeSantis’s pugilism has enabled him to consolidate power in Florida. Any opposition to his toxic initiatives must contend with the uncomfortable truth that voters validated his message and style via his landslide win in November. Now DeSantis thinks he can take his show on the road with a presidential bid. That remains to be seen. Florida has been trending Republican in recent years, and success there might not translate to the current battleground states, many of which saw big Democratic wins in the midterms.
All that being said, there is a great danger to framing this struggle primarily through the lens of electoral politics. This normalizes a discourse that should be rejected by society’s mainstream. Just as the outright bigotry of the past became socially unacceptable, so too should these latest attempts at divisiveness.
It should not surprise us that DeSantis is making schools — both K-12 and college — a central target. He wants to teach a distorted view of America. He wants to make dissenting speech not only suspect but even criminal. He wants to silence the voices of his critics and of critical thinking more generally. This is a playbook that has been followed by demagogues before to very dangerous ends.
It is essential that DeSantis not be covered by the press through a false equivalence paradigm. We can debate what we should teach and how to teach it. But we can’t replace the truth, as unsavory as it may be, with sanitized narratives that suit those already in power. This is a battle for the minds of the voters of the future. This is about what kind of nation we will become.
But DeSantis primarily cares about what kind of country we are now. He wants to appeal to fear because he thinks he can mine that fear for votes. That is his game plan. And he’s not hiding it. There can be no appeasement. DeSantis has already shown that he isn’t interested in deliberations or good faith compromise. Those would disrupt his approach of means to an end.
History illustrates that hatred can be taught, but so can empathy and justice. We are on a winding journey as a nation. And we have much farther to go. But we have made progress in the face of bigots and autocrats because people had the courage to forge the inequities of our past into a more equitable future.
This history, this truth, is what scares people like DeSantis the most. But it is one that can give us hope if we are determined not to look away.
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