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Don’t let toxic elements in Florida spread

Photo caption: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

Though the 45th president of the United States is clearly the primary catalyst for the political division and bigotry that engulfs our nation, the governor of Florida poses an even more ominous threat to our democracy.

This intemperate bully has abused his authority to go after Disney, created a climate of contempt for the gay community, denied voting rights to felons who paid their dues to society, and spewed some of the most inflammatory rhetoric of hatred coming from any elected official.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is facing mounting backlash regarding his administration’s decision to prohibit an Advanced Placement high school course on African American Studies, with Black leaders rallying in the capital, a prominent civil rights lawyer threatening to sue and state lawmakers urging him to reverse the decision.

Florida teachers returning to the classroom this week face what many say are confusing new directives from state education officials over the instruction students should receive in certain classes.

Among the most contentious: standards championed by Republican Governor DeSantis for teaching Black history, which must include discussion of how slavery could have provided beneficial skills to the enslaved and how mob violence against Black people included “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans.”

At a virtual training seminar conducted by the Florida Department of Education, typically a popular two-day session for teachers sponsored by the agency’s African American Task Force, none of the group’s long-standing members even spoke. All have objected to the changes and say they were never consulted. One resigned in protest, calling himself “disgusted” with the new curriculum.

In their place at the seminar were recent appointees from DeSantis’ education commissioner, Manny Diaz, and members of a separate “working group” that created the standards.

The featured speaker was William Barclay Allen, a conservative scholar who has become the public face of the state’s efforts to rewrite how Black history is taught. Allen has repeatedly spoken out against affirmative action, and during his leadership of the Virginia Higher Education Council, he also questioned the role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs. During his chairmanship of the federal civil rights body, he was castigated by fellow commissioners for the title of a 1989 speech, “Blacks? Animals? Homosexuals? What is a Minority?”

That same year, Allen was caught up in a kidnapping case involving a high school student on tribal lands in Arizona. The incident became the subject of a U.S. Senate investigation. Allen refused calls to resign and suggested instead that the entire Commission resign.

The 79-year-old retired professor of government and political science has a resumé notable for appointments to high-profile positions by conservative Republicans.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan named Allen to the National Council of the Humanities, followed three years later by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In appointing him to the Commission, Reagan boasted Allen would prevent the Commission from becoming “an arm of the advocacy groups in the Civil Rights Movement.”

During the recent virtual training, he told teachers they should teach “the whole picture.” As an example, he focused on the nine students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. Though they were first blocked from entering the school by members of the Arkansas National Guard, after President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the unit, some of those same soldiers were “protecting and escorting those children into school,” he recounted.

“If we can convey no other message to our teachers, that’s the message we must convey, that the story is never just one way,” Allen said.

Because the AP curriculum is the same in all states, DeSantis’ critics say Florida officials should not be able to determine what goes into it. Illinois Governor JB Pritzker (D) called on the College Board to ignore pressure from the DeSantis administration.

Pritzker said Illinois would “reject any curriculum modifications designed to appease extremists like the Florida governor and his allies.”

“I urge you to maintain your reputation as an academic institution dedicated to the advancement of students and refuse to bow to political pressure that would ask you to rewrite our nation’s true, if sometimes, unpleasant history,” Pritzker wrote in a letter to College Board CEO David Coleman on Wednesday. “One governor should not have the power to dictate the facts of U.S. history.”

Pritzker is taking the appropriate and thoughtful approach to a quandary that has far-reaching implications. DeSantis is perpetuating a path of confrontation that not only belies the nation’s history but disenfranchises the contributions of those of the Africana diaspora.

Don’t go to sleep on Florida. Don’t look away. Don’t tire of revealing and spreading truth and holding those in leadership accountable. DeSantis is the most conspicuous, but he is merely a microcosm of a deeper toxic element that threatens us all. If Florida gets away with this, it will open the doors for similar aggressions in other states. That is what we can’t allow.

CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].

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