If a middle school student at a public school in Sarasota County, Florida, wants to read “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, one of their parents will have to be notified first.
The book’s journey from being widely available to requiring parental supervision began in May 2022, when Allison Euker, a parent to a child at Venice Middle School, filed a challenge to the book, which is geared toward sixth to 12th graders and is about the history of racism in the U.S. However, Euker claimed the book promoted critical race theory and told white children they were inferior because they were white.
In separate decisions, the school and the district declined to remove the book from the library. Euker appealed the district’s decision and, on Tuesday, appeared in front of the school board to make her case against the book.
That’s how an all-white board in Florida ended up debating the fate of a book about antiracism during Black History Month.
“Happy Black History Month — now let’s ban a book that says racism is wrong!” Tallulah Brand, a middle school student in Sarasota County, exclaimed into the microphone at the meeting.
None of the more than a dozen people making a public comment on Tuesday favored removing the book from schools.
The board ultimately voted to keep it in schools but require parental notification for it to be checked out. This may seem like a compromise, but one board member, Tom Edwards, ominously asked how many other books would be challenged and end up with this same fate.
‘Crosshair Of This Culture War’
Like many others in Florida, Sarasota’s school board is run by conservatives who won races by harping on parental rights, a term that implicitly only refers to the parents of right-leaning and Republican parents.
In November, after being sworn in, the board’s first order of business was to a motion to fire Brennan Asplen, the superintendent at the time. Asplen had received high-performance evaluations, but board members said he lacked leadership, citing his COVID pro-masking policy and trying to limit public comments after parents disrupted school board meetings. As a result, Asplen signed a separation agreement in December.
What happened in Sarasota this week resulted from a combination of anti-Blackness, book banning, and the rise of far-right political activists clinching local power across the state. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “anti-woke” agenda has led to censorship, including book challenges and eliminating classes that dare to take on the reality of a racialized society. And educators are bearing the brunt of it.
“Teachers are censoring themselves,” Marie Masferrer, a Hillsborough County public school system librarian, told HuffPost. “You’re worried that if you teach Black history, someone might get offended.”
On paper, African American history is still required in Florida schools, and the state’s Department of Education acknowledges Black History Month. But the STOP WOKE Act, championed by the state’s Republican governor and passed by a majority-GOP state legislature, has re-energized an anti-Black movement in Florida schools. The legislation, which became law in 2022, forbids public school educators from teaching critical race theory (CRT) — a term that refers to a college-level concept that deals with structural racism.
The law is vague about what counts as CRT on the K-12 level, leaving educators wondering what they can teach and what crosses the line conservative politicians have drawn.
“It’s the teachers who are caught in the crosshairs of this culture war,” Masferrer said.
Conservatives have long seen themselves as warriors in a fight over American culture. But since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis in 2020, the GOP has accelerated its quest to remake the country in their right-wing vision.
After Floyd’s death prompted widespread protests denouncing racism, conservatives latched on to CRT as the boogeyman du jour. Anti-racist works and diversity workshops drew their ire.
Then they zeroed in on people who belong to the LGBTQ community, smearing gay teachers, passing anti-trans legislation, and attacking drag performers. Anything that was both Black and gay was just extra fodder for conservatives.
Last year, the Republican-controlled Florida state legislature passed a law requiring public school librarians to adhere to new — but very vague — guidance about which books could be used in classrooms. The policy threatened that educators could be charged with a felony if they didn’t follow the guidance banning books that indoctrinate students but didn’t define those terms.
Educators soon began posting photos on social media of their empty bookshelves and books they felt they had to remove. The books in question mostly deal with LGBTQ or racial justice themes.
Last month, amidst the drama and confusion surrounding books, DeSantis announced that the state’s Department of Education had canceled the Advanced Placement African American History class, which was in its pilot phase but still available for juniors and seniors in high schools across the state.
“As presented, the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value,” the governor’s administration said in a letter to the College Board, the organization that oversees AP courses and college entrance exams. In its pilot phase, the course covered topics like incarceration and the debate over reparations for slavery.
Manny Diaz, the state’s Education Department commissioner, tweeted that the course was full of CRT and “other obvious violations of Florida law.”
He wrote: “We proudly require the teaching of African American history. We do not accept woke indoctrination masquerading as education.”
The College Board later announced removing some of the content DeSantis found objectionable, such as prominent Black authors like bell hooks and Ta-nehisi Coates and information about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“[Gov. DeSantis] wants a half-full view of African American history,” David Canton, an African American studies professor at the University of Florida, told HuffPost. “They only want to teach the uplifting narrative about Black history.”
However, the College Board said its decision about the course was apolitical.
“This is the first time an entire course has been canceled,” said Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Educators Association. “It’s clear that they want to choose who tells Black history and through what lens.”
DeSantis’ “anti-woke” agenda comes as rumors swirl that he plans to throw his hat into the 2024 presidential race. He’s increasingly pushing policies and directives that appeal to the blood-red base of the Republican Party.
“It’s more important to him to fight this culture war and become president than it is to let kids learn,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told HuffPost.
“This is what DeSantis does when he doesn’t like something,” Weingarten added. “He just attempts to eliminate it.”
There’s evidence that DeSantis’ attempts to infringe on educators’ ability to teach Black history and other topics that make right-wingers uncomfortable are starting to have an effect.
According to a RAND survey of teachers across the country, in many states where education restrictions had been enacted, such as Florida, educators reported that they were changing their curriculums because of state-level restrictions.
“I told my kids they can handcuff me and drag me out before they take any books out of my library,” Masferrer said.
But for every outspoken teacher in a district with supportive administration, some worry that doing the wrong thing could cost them their jobs.
“There are teachers who are scared to death,” Masferrer said. “They’re leaving the profession over this.”
Weingarten said the purge of so-called woke educators along with books and curriculum was likely the plan: “This is exactly the chilling effect the Florida governor was pushing for.”