On January 5, 2023, Ron DeSantis, taking a playbook from Donald Trump’s “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” Executive Order of fall 2020, proclaimed that his administration, as part of the budget process, required “a comprehensive list of all staff, programs and campus activities related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory.” Three weeks later, public colleges in Oklahoma were issued an even more invasive requirement to list every single employee, program, and course that had been associated with DEI work in the last decade.
The DeSantis administration rejected a proposed AP African American Studies course for inclusion into the state’s high school curriculum. The reasoning behind this rejection was first that the curriculum “lacked educational value.” But in a press conference on January 23, 2023, DeSantis articulated some further beliefs about the proposed AP curriculum: “this course on Black history, what [is] one of the lessons about? Queer Theory. Now, who would say that’s an important part of Black history, Queer Theory? That is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids.”
News outlets and Twitter activists were quick to underscore and highlight the hypocrisy and overreach politicians in Florida and Oklahoma performed. Some pointed out the McCarthyian world that academics in Florida and Oklahoma were suddenly navigating, while others asserted that queerness is part of African American life. Many singled out Black queer excellence of the past, as seen in James Baldwin or Audre Lourde.
While pointing out hypocrisies and those overlooked in these moments is an understandable tactic, it is also limited because it is reactionary only. Pointing out hypocrisy or trying to reason against these tactics implicitly accepts the problematic discourse that frames political policing of higher education’s curriculum. It suggests a culture war or political legitimacy to current attacks on higher education’s focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, or critical race theory when a white nationalist lens’s encroachment underpins those attacks into higher education.
The most recent attacks, moreover, are situating politicians as capable of defining what counts as “academically valuable.” At this moment, academics should work to reject the current frames on the discourse regarding DEI in higher education and consider a better, proactive strategy.
The budgetary threats and policy-making moves working to limit anti-racist, intersectional, or theoretical paradigms on higher education campuses are nothing new. Indeed, although using language like “academically valuable,” the DeSantis administration is part of a centuries-old apparatus that punishes knowledge meant to identify and legitimize the full humanity of people of color. This centuries-old apparatus is currently working to bring a nostalgic view of the past into a reality of the present to secure the future—a trick of leveraging nostalgia for racist reasons that I have articulated in The New White Nationalism in Political and Higher Education: The Nostalgia Spectrum.
The History of Oppressive Approaches to Knowledge
The fact that Florida and Oklahoma officials’ reach into the academic realm consists of questioning only on non-white curriculum and training is rife with racist power of the sort we have seen since slavery. Rather than situating these authoritarian moves in the context of the political era we live in, it is much more helpful to contextualize them in the long history of how knowledge has been associated with racial power.
Whites have often controlled African American representation in curriculum or even other cultural institutions for well over three centuries. Among the most famous slave narratives, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a Slave begins with a letter to the reader from Wendell Phillips, who proclaims Douglass’ book is worthy of a read by a white audience. The fact that this letter had to exist illustrates the discursive reality the black body and intellectual lived in, as well as the expectations of a white audience at the time: For an African American writer, even Douglas, to gain a hearing required a white man to authenticate the text as “valuable” and worthy of a read. The assumption was clear that a text would not be “academically valuable” to borrow a DeSantis term without some white authority legitimizing it as so.
Whites managed the ways in which knowledge of African Americans could be situated well beyond the slavery era. One of the more tragic literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance was Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was known only for his dialect poetry for the majority of his writing career. While his dialect poetry still has value today, he yearned to publish and be known for the poetry written in traditional American English. However, no American publisher would accept his poetry in traditional verse, and he proclaimed in dismay, “I’ve got to write dialect poetry, it’s the only way I can get them to listen to me.” Dunbar’s reality was all but solidified when the literary heavyweight of the era, William Dean Howells, a white man, wrote that Dunbar was able to capture the spirit of the African American more than any other poet in the country. “I see now very clearly that Mr. Howells has done me irrevocable harm in the dictum he laid down regarding my dialect verse,” Dunbar would later say of Howells’ influence on his career and also the view that white audiences took toward African American letters.
Dunbar’s case mirrors Douglas’ in that that white literary complex defined what an African American aesthetic and matching identity was revealed to be for the broader public. Circularly, in Dunbar’s case, the only way to continue to be published was to fit whites’ expectations, stereotypical as they were, of a white audience.
In this circular manner, whiteness was defining blackness in a very limited capacity and found African Americans to fit into that definition using their socioeconomic power to do so. Robin D.G. Kelley’s Race Rebels underscores a similar dynamic that can be traced through blaxploitation films and gangsta rap, where intersections of representation, authenticity, capitalism and white authentication find their nexus in a black identity not reflective of the full humanity of the black experience. Of late, we have seen African American politicians, such as Herschel Walker, run on Republican tickets not because of quality or content, but because they seem to fit a similar representational power dynamics present in Dunbar’s dialect poetry.
When rooted in this context, the current moment in Florida and Oklahoma looks like an attempt to place the African American experience back into the paradigm of white control and power after there was hope that more liberating discourses and paradigms existed in higher education circles, especially in the aftermath of George Floyd’s lynching, when academia made promises about expanded access, diversity, and equity, most of which dissolved into the ether with time. The danger in situating this moment in a political discursive frame rather than one that is social, racial, and historical is that legitimacy is assumed at the center of the DeSantian attacks on racial knowledge. But this is anything but legitimate. It is an attempt to put the toothpaste back in the tube—an attempt to take the current moment where new theoretical paradigms are pushing the understanding of race and its intersections further into a past that did not allow such understanding. (I have called this phenomenon the Nostalgia Spectrum.) It is an ideology that is not new but has been present for centuries; however, the tactics have shifted. Florida and Oklahoma seek control to ensure that black identity (and other identities) is monolithic rather than full of sexual, intellectual, national, gendered, religious, economic, cultural, and social identities and intersections.
When the frames of the discourse regarding race isolate the understanding of contemporary politics, the full shape of the power dynamics and their lineage is not fully understood. In the same vein, the apparatus that is whiteness—a flexible system of control that continuously ensures the power by limiting the voices, power, and agency of the already marginalized—remains intact.
Despite the rhetoric of progress typically leaned on in political circles, the current moment and the way in which power is being asserted illustrate a relatively static, centuries-old approach to race and power in America. Florida and Oklahoma are to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and AP African American Studies is what William Dean Howells to Dunbar.
Finally, situating the current contestations for knowledge in a socio-historical framework provides a nuanced understanding of the power at play beyond the conservative/liberal binary. These are contestations for progress toward a more perfect union on the one hand or an authoritarian state on the other. When we see the trajectory, or lack thereof, in how power is exerted, we are also allowed a line of sight into how and why certain theoretical paradigms are so resisted. For instance, there is seemingly an acceptance that CRT is flawed as a theoretical lens, even among academics who shout for inclusion—the resounding cry from academics accused of using CRT is that they are not. While CRT may not be taught in particular courses, it certainly has been applied to arrive at a fuller picture of the socio-historical context being painted in classes. Why are schools continuously claiming that they do not teach CRT? Why are our academic leaders not proclaiming this with pride?
We have defaulted to a position that our black feminists and their peers need to be strategically tip-toed around so as not to insult those who are in power, not recognizing that these theories were developed because of who has been and continues to exert that power. Instead, we should be unapologetic about these theories, and in the process, especially in the debates about what is academic, wrest control of the debate. Make no mistake; we choose the frames of debate now. We either accept them as legitimately political, or we establish knowledge and its development as an academic responsibility while resisting encroachment into the curriculum by those who wish to exclude rather than include them for the long term. For it is clear that Florida and Oklahoma are just the first states that have chosen these tactics.
Dr. Michael H. Gavin
Dr. Michael H. Gavin is the President of Delta College. He is the author of two books; the most recent, The New White Nationalism in Politics and Higher Education, was released this summer.
Known nationally for his administrative leadership that focuses on academic excellence and equity, Dr. Gavin has over twenty years of experience at large community colleges with enrollments of over 35,000 students. Prior to becoming an administrator, Dr. Gavin was a tenured professor of English at PGCC. He earned his doctorate in American Studies at the University of Maryland the same year he was promoted to full professor.
Whether serving on national or local boards, working on a committee, or through his scholarship, Dr. Gavin is committed to the notion that community colleges have the capacity to reshape the inequities in society through open-access education and teaching excellence.