Yesterday, I accompanied Florida governor Ron DeSantis on an early-morning flight from Tallahassee to The Villages retirement community, where he was scheduled to deliver a policy address on critical race theory. During the flight, DeSantis reviewed talking points for his speech, edited communications materials, and, after the plane touched down, selected a red-and-blue sign that would hang on the podium: “STOP WOKE ACT.”
DeSantis warmed up the crowd of approximately 100 people at Ezell Regional Recreation Center and outlined the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act,” which would ban critical-race-theory indoctrination in public schools, prohibit racially abusive training programs in the workplace, and provide parents and workers the right to sue institutions that violate these prohibitions.
The governor framed the rise of critical race theory as a mortal threat to the United States. “I think what you see now with the rise of this woke ideology is an attempt to really delegitimize our history and to delegitimize our institutions,” he said. “And they basically want to replace it with a very militant form of leftism that would absolutely destroy this country.”
As illustrations of critical race theory in American institutions, DeSantis cited seven of my reports for City Journal: Arizona claiming that babies are racist; Santa Clara County denouncing the United States as a “parasitic system”; Philadelphia teaching students to celebrate “Black communism”; San Diego telling teachers “you are racist”; Bank of America teaching that the United States is a “system of white supremacy”; Verizon teaching that America is fundamentally racist; and Google teaching that all Americans are “raised to be racist.”
Over the past year, DeSantis has emerged one of the most articulate political spokesmen for the anti-critical race theory movement. His new policy agenda builds on successful anti-CRT legislation in other states but goes two steps further. First, it provides parents with a “private right of action,” which allows them to sue offending institutions for violations, gain information through legal discovery, and, if they win in the courts, collect attorney’s fees. Second, it tackles critical race theory in corporate “diversity, equity, and inclusion” training programs, which, DeSantis says, sometimes promote racial stereotyping, scapegoating, and harassment, in violation of state civil rights laws.
At heart, the battle against critical race theory is a fight against entrenched bureaucracies that have used public institutions to promote their own racialist ideology. “This is an elite-driven phenomenon being driven by bureaucratic elites, elites in universities, and elites in corporate America, and they’re trying to shove it down the throats of the American people,” DeSantis said. “You’re not doing that in the state of Florida.”
Following his speech, DeSantis invited me to address the crowd. I explained that the reason critical race theory has upset so many Americans is that it speaks to two deep reservoirs of human sentiment: citizens’ desire for self-government and parents’ desire to shape the moral and educational development of their children. Elite institutions have attempted to step between parent and child.
DeSantis has deftly positioned himself as a protector of middle-American families. One of the guest speakers, Lacaysha Howell, a biracial mother from Sarasota, said that left-wing teachers tried to persuade her daughter that the white side of their family was oppressive. Another speaker, Eulalia Jimenez, a Cuban-American mother from the Miami area, said that left-wing indoctrination in schools reminded her of her father’s warnings about Communism in his native Cuba. Both believed that critical race theory was poison to the American Dream.
As they begin their next session in January, Florida legislators have the opportunity to craft the gold standard for “culture war” policy. The governor’s team has worked with a range of interested parties, including the Manhattan Institute, which has crafted model language for prohibiting racialist indoctrination and providing curriculum transparency to parents. The battle is ultimately about shaping public policy in accord with public values. “I think we have an ability [to] just draw a line in the sand and say, ‘That’s not the type of society that we want here in the state of Florida,’” said DeSantis yesterday. The stakes are high—and all eyes are on Florida to deliver.