When Ron DeSantis was asked by a Fox News host two years ago if the United States is "systemically racist," the Florida governor quickly responded: "It's a bunch of horse manure." He went on to boast that he had banned such ideas in Florida's schools.
Boisterously banning books, educational curricula and college programs that address racism or LGBTQ dignity – or both (with added bigotry toward queer writers of color like James Baldwin and Audre Lorde) – DeSantis is building his national "anti-woke" profile as he seems to be readying a presidential campaign against his former hero Donald Trump.
A Yale history and Harvard law graduate, DeSantis briefly taught high-school history after Yale. So even DeSantis probably agrees that U.S. slavery was systemic racism. And I'm somewhat certain he agrees that legally enforced Jim Crow racial discrimination in the U.S. South was systemic racism, including Florida's toxic racial-oppression-by-law that lasted for 100 years after the Civil War.
As late as 1967, sixty miles from where DeSantis would later grow up, a law was enacted by the city of Sarasota that stated: "Whenever members of two or more…races shall…be upon any public…bathing beach within the corporate limits of the City of Sarasota, it shall be the duty of the Chief of police or other officer…in charge of the public forces of the City...with the assistance of such police forces, to clear the area involved of all members of all races present."
Gov. DeSantis, who dislikes questioning from actual journalists (as opposed to Fox News hosts), seems bent on riding white fragility, anger and grievance into the White House. He should be confronted at every opportunity to answer a simple question: If it's currently "horse manure," when did systemic racism end in our country?
If his answer is 1964, when Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act, DeSantis should be directed to Sarasota's 1967 city ordinance. If his answer is that it ended with the 2008 election of biracial Barack Obama, he should be asked to explain persistent patterns of racial discrimination that outlived the Obama presidency such as racial segregation in housing and wide-ranging barriers to black homeownership like redlining and predatory bank lending. That's also systemic racism and it's happened in both the North and the South — as Newsday showed recently in its exhaustive study of discrimination faced by potential homeowners of color on Long Island, New York.
Today, racially segregated neighborhoods lead to segregated schools, with people of color systemically offered inferior educational opportunities. The highest percentage of predominantly single-race schools in the 2020/21 school year were found not in the South, but in the Northeast and Midwest, according to a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Environmental racism, meanwhile, is long-standing and enduring in our country as pollution and cancer-causing industries hit communities of color disproportionately, causing death and disease – compounded by pervasive racial disparities in the provision of medical care.
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DeSantis hopes to run for president as a "law-and-order" candidate with the endorsements of police unions. He should be asked about criminal justice and police practices that systematically treat black citizens and other people of color differently and worse than whites. That's a present-day problem, as shown in study after study across the country. After the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, for example, the U.S. Justice Department investigated the Ferguson, Missouri, police department and found that racial bias and the city's need for revenue resulted in routine Constitutional violations that disproportionately affected African Americans – with officers "stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them."
When DeSantis was reelected governor last November in a landslide, he received only 13 percent of the black vote, according to exit polls. I've been spending my winters in Florida, where it's hard not to see black poverty, despair, and segregated neighborhoods. But DeSantis looks away.
When I attended public elementary and middle schools in Detroit in the 1960s, we didn't learn much of any Black history. Today's champions of white victimhood claim that the teaching of ethnic history and ongoing/systemic racism stokes guilt feelings among white students and anger between students of different racial groups. If we'd had such teaching back in Detroit, I think it would have indeed prompted anger among Black and white students — not at each other, but at the persistent patterns of racism in our country, motivating many to activism.
But greater unity around a shared understanding of history is exactly what DeSantis fears. He's a divide-and-conquer politician, in the tradition of George Wallace, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. He knows exactly what he's doing, and he has the Ivy League degrees to accomplish it.