Skip to content

The insidious power of keeping it vague

Educators may want to challenge Florida’s ‘Stop Woke Act,’ but it’s difficult to fight something that's so hard to pin down

ln 2023, “woke” means whatever Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants it to mean, Curtis writes.
ln 2023, “woke” means whatever Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants it to mean, Curtis writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“Say what you mean and mean what you say,” unless you want to keep everyone guessing. Alas, vague is in vogue, the better to sow confusion about not-so-honorable intentions — and get your way in the end.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has mastered this dark art, most recently as he ordered thoughtful discussions of African American history to end before they had begun, with studies of other cultures somehow escaping his ire.

A pilot of an Advanced Placement course on the subject has run into the buzz saw of the state’s “Stop Woke Act.” 

The Florida Department of Education’s letter to the College Board said the content of its AP African American studies course “is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value,” showing by its use of “inexplicably” that it had no earthly reason for a decision intended to close, not open, young minds.

Try teaching the history of the United States of America with “just the facts,” and you might end up with lessons on the enslavement of men, women and children, lynching, redlining and Jim Crow without judgment, without pointing out the evil, the inhumanity and the apathy of those who looked the other way while reaping the benefits of racist oppression.

In the name of not causing trauma in today’s students, Florida policymakers are erasing the trauma of the families and descendants of the Floridians lynched in Tallahassee, the state’s capital city, where the same lawmakers obviously close their eyes when passing markers acknowledging that chapter in American history.

Educators may want to fight back. But with jobs and livelihoods at stake, there are risks. ProPublica talked to a number of professors without tenure who are anxiously changing course names and weeding out terms such as “white privilege” to dodge cancellation and firing. But it’s difficult to avoid something that’s so hard to pin down, knowing all the while that disgruntled students who might be unhappy about a grade know exactly which “woke” cudgel will get immediate results.

So, for those instructors, it’s better to just stop. Just stop any mention of gender politics and the roots of racism, just stop connecting the dots between modern wealth and health gaps and how America’s institutions were constructed with discrimination the motivating factor.

Just stop answering questions from students of every race who are supposed to be curious, but apparently not too curious.

Don’t tell the governor that “woke” comes from a 1938 “stay woke” caution from blues singer Lead Belly, advice for Black Americans who wanted to avoid a fate similar to that of the falsely accused “Scottsboro Boys.” And by all means, don’t teach that in a Florida school. Because in 2023, “woke” means whatever DeSantis wants it to mean.

Unfortunately, Florida has set a template for other states, such as South Carolina, where Republican legislators have proposed a bill already being criticized by organizations such as the state’s American Civil Liberties Union for what it calls vague language that could discourage teachers from settling there.

A vague election law has already had its desired effect in, yes, Florida. After voters overwhelmingly approved opening up the franchise to former felons who had served their time, Republican legislators said, “Not so fast.”

Many of those hopeful voters, after being registered by confused election officials, themselves unsure of exactly what the law said, were swept up by DeSantis’ “election integrity” task force, arrested by law enforcement officers who seemed puzzled about the details of the law the terrified, targeted citizens were supposed to have broken.

Of course, those hauled out of their homes in handcuffs in well-publicized raids were mostly African American, with the white transgressors in The Villages given not much more than a slap on their presumably Republican wrists.

Charges may have been dropped in most cases, but do you think minority folks with a former brush with the law would risk another by voting?

Call it a pattern of intimidation by obfuscation.

Book bans and rules in cities and states across the country have pushed out many teachers and librarians who loved their work but didn’t relish doing battle with angry culture warriors whose voices drowned out dissenters.

Now, many school librarians who stuck it out are confused about which books and magazines they are allowed to order, especially when lawmakers, citizen panels, school board members, loud parents and occasionally people without a child in the school or community have the final say.

So, they’ve stopped. No new books for school libraries that need them, for students who present lists of titles they are eager to read. Will discouraged young people give up on reading altogether when they can’t see themselves in literature, when they are denied anything that might excite them or introduce them to something surprising?

That’s the fear of many teachers and librarians, who have stopped; they are stuck, waiting for clarification, when confusion is the point. “No one is going to want to visit the library,” one told The Washington Post in a story that explained their plight. For someone like me who spent endless hours in the library, consuming books on everything and being exposed to ideas that made me think, reading a quote like that is a heartbreaker.

The only antidote to such foolishness is a dose of clarity — and bravery.

That’s where Marvin Dunn comes in. At 82, maybe the professor emeritus at Florida International University, an African American who has lived through the worst the state can dish out, has seen too much to use a labyrinthine law as a reason to back off.

Dunn is a plaintiff in a suit against the DeSantis law, and he is leaning into his role as teacher by leading high school students and their parents on “Teach the Truth” tours to the sites of some of the worst racial violence in Florida history. He has bought a few acres of property in what was Rosewood, a mostly Black town burned to the ground by a white mob in 1923, to preserve what and who should never be forgotten.

Might that cause discomfort? Perhaps, and reasons to reject the hate that made such acts possible.

“Listen, if there is such a thing as the woke mob in Florida,” Dunn told The Washington Post, “I aspire to lead it.”

Nothing vague about that.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

Recent Stories

Biden, leaders optimistic about avoiding shutdown, press Johnson on Ukraine

Supreme Court to hear arguments on Trump-era ‘bump stock’ rule

Senate Democrats prepare for IVF push

Congress will improve military housing

Capitol Ink | He gets us

Funding at risk for program that helps millions afford internet