If Ron DeSantis is famous for anything these days, it’s for opposing any public- or even private-sector program or activity based on fighting discrimination against racial (or for that matter, gender or sexual orientation) minority groups. Florida under the DeSantis administration is, as the governor regularly boasts, “where woke goes to die.”
Even Republicans who aren’t big fans of DeSantis seem pleased by this posture. So you wouldn’t figure he’d have much to fear in the way of criticism by other Republicans (pretty much his entire universe at the moment, as one might expect of someone locked in a cage match for the presidential nomination) for being insensitive to Black folks and their distinctive concerns. But DeSantis is currently locked into a fractious and politically perilous argument with prominent Black Republicans about the new un-woke standards he has imposed on Florida schools for teaching Black history, and especially the legacy of slavery. At first, the governor and his mouthpieces appeared to take the mild criticism of him expressed by Black Florida congressman Byron Donalds as just another example of a Trump ally smearing him, and they fired back without inhibition, as Forbes reported on Friday:
In a tweet after the new curriculum was approved, Donalds praised the guidelines overall as “good, robust, & accurate” upon seeing them, but took issue with the idea of slaves developing skills for personal benefit, calling it wrong and recommending that part of the curriculum be readjusted. DeSantis reacted to Donalds’ viewpoint, telling reporters at a campaign stop that Donalds has to choose if he will side “with Kamala Harris and liberal media outlets” or side with the state of Florida.
Then another Black congressman who supports Trump escalated the conflict, per Politico:
“As the direct descendent of a slave, I have a hard time understanding Governor DeSantis’ position that transferrable skills learned in bondage are somehow a net benefit,” said Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-Texas), an ally of Donalds. “If Ron DeSantis spent more time doing the job the people of Florida elected him to do and less time on his failing Presidential campaign, perhaps Florida’s curriculum on slavery would more accurately reflect the pain and heartbreak experienced by millions who suffered through the original sin.”
But the brouhaha reached a whole new level when a Black member of Congress who is not in Trump’s camp, 2024 presidential candidate Tim Scott, weighed in and, as Politico notes, and DeSantis whaled away at him, too:
“There is no silver lining in slavery,” Scott said. “Slavery was really about separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives. It was just devastating.”
DeSantis responded to Scott on Friday, once more by accusing him of echoing Harris.
“Part of the reason our country has struggled is because D.C. Republicans all too often accept false narratives, accept lies that are perpetrated by the Left,” he said during a swing through Iowa. “And to accept the lie that Kamala Harris has been perpetrating even when that has been debunked, that’s not the way you do it.”
DeSantis is really playing with fire here. He does not appear to fully appreciate the important role the Black Republicans he’s trashing play in protecting the self-image of white Republicans. As the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman explains, white Republicans really don’t want anyone to confuse them with racists:
The true commitment of today’s Republican Party is not to racism (though there are plenty of genuine racists who thrill to what the GOP offers, and especially to former president Donald Trump). It is to what is best described as anti-antiracism. In a sense, anti-antiracism is its own ideology. It holds that racism directed at minorities is largely a thing of the past; that whatever racism does exist is a product only of individual hearts and not of institutions and systems; that efforts to ameliorate racism and promote diversity are both counterproductive and morally abhorrent; and, most critically, that those efforts must not only be stopped but also rolled back.
Black Republican pols (and more generally, Black conservative voices) regularly reassure white brethren that their own successes in life and politics demonstrate America’s fairness, and that despising anti-discrimination measures (from affirmative action in college admissions to corporate DEI programs) is not only kosher, but essential to the “color-blindness” that is the only real guarantor of equality. While nonwhite candidates Scott, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy have other qualities attractive to Republican voters, the value of their validation of white anti-wokeness as non-racist is hard to overestimate.
To put it another way, DeSantis is engaged in a struggle for the soul of the GOP’s anti-anti-racist movement with people who are much more credible than he is. And worse yet, when he goes out of his way to insult Black Republicans, he’s running the risk of looking actually racist — and only Donald Trump can get away with that.