Ron DeSantis has continued his war on critical race theory by rejecting Advanced Placement African American history for supposedly advancing the tenets of this forbidden strain of thought. “Florida rejected an AP course filled with Critical Race Theory and other obvious violations of Florida law,” boasts Manny Diaz Jr., Florida’s commissar — sorry, commissioner — of education.
The irony is that critical race theory happens to be an excellent intellectual framework for understanding DeSantis himself.
Critical race theory is a framework of legal and social analysis that seeks to understand how racism can be perpetuated through formally race-neutral methods. CRT is explicitly an alternative to liberalism, and it has spawned many radical and (obviously, by definition) illiberal ideas and policies. Actions like speech codes and efforts to deplatform conservative speakers on campus are usually inspired by critical race theory.
But the theory has real value as a critique and provides insight into how a figure like DeSantis has carried out a systematic attack on African American political power without relying on bygone tools like de facto segregation.
I want to be very clear that I am not calling DeSantis a racist. There is no reason to believe he harbors any personal dislike toward Black people or believes they are genetically inferior or privately employs slurs or stereotypes. In 2018, he stirred up controversy by warning that electing his Black opponent as governor would “monkey it up” but insisted he had used the phrase thoughtlessly, rather than maliciously, and deserves the benefit of the doubt. (He did not use any other dog-whistle phrases for the rest of the campaign.)
What I am arguing instead is that DeSantis’s political ambitions have entailed disempowering Black citizens in his state in a calculated fashion. Most of these events took place before he had catapulted himself to the center of the national debate, and they received far less attention than his more recent culture-war thrusts. But they are at least as significant, if not more so.
The election that propelled DeSantis into the governorship also included a referendum to reenfranchise felons who had served their sentences. The disenfranchisement of felons is a method that, though formally neutral with regard to race, is closely intertwined with white supremacy.
Many states in the former Confederacy enacted lifetime bans on voting by ex-felons during and immediately after Reconstruction, when they were seeking ways to disenfranchise Black people without violating the 15th Amendment. This provision leveraged the judicial system, which prosecuted Black people at much higher rates than white people. As a result, as Brent Staples noted in 2014, Black people have been removed from the electorate at a rate four times higher than white people.
DeSantis’s answer to the referendum giving those ex-felons their voting rights back was deviously effective. He signed a measure requiring those former convicts wishing to vote to pay back any fines they owed the state. Obviously, as much as a person might take pride in voting, very few people are willing to pay large sums of money for the privilege, especially people coming out of a long prison term who are strapped for cash. (The state’s laxity in enforcing these payments from indigent ex-felons was what made the fine so effective: They generally didn’t have to pay anything unless they wanted to vote.)
Even more ingeniously, the state had no centralized system for recording fines, which meant that even those ex-felons willing to pay money to vote, and able to muster the funds to pay the poll tax, were generally unable to do so. The “fine” requirement simply tossed them into a bureaucratic maze in which there was no exit.
Last year, DeSantis strong-armed his party into enacting an aggressive new congressional map that dramatically reduced the representation of Black voters. Two districts that had elected Black Democrats to Congress were broken up and scattered. One district, populated by descendants of Black sharecroppers and slaves, was broken up into four pieces, each scattered into a mostly white, heavily Republican district in which the Black vote would have little influence.
It’s hardly uncommon for Republicans to reduce the influence of Black voters, but this was not merely a routine party measure. DeSantis had to twist the arms of fellow Republicans to go along with such an aggressive measure. “In meetings, he would just demand, ‘Pass my maps! My maps! My maps!’ He’s just bizarrely obsessed with this,” a Republican told Marc Caputo.
DeSantis hadn’t denied Black citizens in those districts the right to cast a ballot. They simply no longer had a realistic chance to be represented by a candidate who agreed with them.
Again last year, DeSantis formed a new state-police division dedicated to prosecuting voting fraud despite a paucity of evidence it existed. A few months later, he gathered the media, flanked by police officers, to splashily announce a wave of new arrests for alleged voting fraud.
The operation consisted of a series of raids upon shocked, mostly Black Floridians. In the ensuing days, DeSantis’s voter-fraud cases disintegrated. The “fraudulent” voters had been told by election authorities that they were eligible to vote.
But the tactic served his purpose anyway. It gave him a hook for another wave of adulatory coverage in the conservative media, which lauded his heroic fight against the specter of voter fraud. And it sent a chilling message to the Black community. Many Black people are afraid of the police and don’t trust the government to treat them fairly. DeSantis’s message is that voting could cause them to be pulled out of their house in their undergarments and hauled off to prison for casting a ballot — even if they believe they’re eligible to vote.
DeSantis’s critics have often dismissed his agenda as a “culture war.” But his crusade to ban critical race theory is not merely a spectacle designed to get his face on Fox News — it is an attack on a theory that helps explain how, without doing or saying anything racist, DeSantis has systematically disempowered Black people.