Feb 1, 2023 - Podcasts

Florida's fight over the teaching of Black history

Florida last month rejected an Advanced Placement African American Studies Class for its schools. As Black History Month begins, we're digging into this fight and Florida's own history.

  • Plus, a new survey takes the pulse of educator anxiety.
  • And, missing monkeys are just the latest in a series of strange events at the Dallas Zoo.

Guests: Axios' Russell Contreras, Michael Mooney and Florida International University's Dr. Marvin Dunn.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Naomi Shavin, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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Statement from Gov. Ron DeSantis' office to Axios Today:

Here’s why the Stop WOKE Act (Bill name Individual Freedom Act) doesn’t prohibit speech or ideas from free exchange, but actually protects the open exchange of ideas:

The concepts cannot be forced on employees as a condition of employment, etc. meaning there is no choice but for the employee to be subjected to these concepts. Though we greatly disagree with the concepts above, no employer, etc. is prohibited from holding voluntary workshops, seminars, or trainings on them. Nor is the employer prohibited from communicating these concepts to the public.  The employer simply cannot subject employees to mandatory training on these concepts where the employer attempts to impose the concepts on the employee.

The concepts are designed to force individuals to believe something. As we have seen so regularly in schools and workplaces tainted with DEI and CRT, these concepts are specifically designed and taught in a manner to convince people to adopt a certain proscribed ideology -- not to think critically about them (as they are certainly not presented with alternatives.) They are designed to influence an individual’s thoughts about themselves and society and delivered by individuals with authority or influence over others (employers over employees, teachers over students). That means this isn’t a peer-to-peer discussion or public discourse, but it is coming from someone with power over another and all of the associated leverages of their position. That said, the law does not prohibit training where the concepts are merely discussed, as opposed to espoused and inculcated.  The law specifically provides that it “may not be construed to prohibit discussion of the concepts listed therein as part of a course of training or instruction, provided such training or instruction is given in an objective manner without endorsement of the concepts.”

Finally, the law is designed to prohibit forced indoctrination in these concepts because doing so is discriminatory.  This is racial harassment, which is likewise prohibited both by the Florida Civil Rights Act and Title VII. Consider a scenario wherein an employer cannot take adverse employment action against an employee because of his or her race but could inundate its employee with racially hostile indoctrination.  If the former conduct is prohibited, the latter should be as well.

Finally, keeping employees or students from being forced to think a certain way upon condition of employment and as directed by those with authority or influence over others (employers over employees, teachers over students) protects freedom of thought. And the concepts as specified in the bill in particular are discriminatory concepts that, if ultimately forcibly adopted by society, will inevitably invite the speech-hating collateral consequences of unbridled, hatred-fueled collectivism.


NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Wednesday, the first day of February and of Black History Month.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today on the show: Florida’s fight over African American history. And, why educators across the country are rethinking their approach to race. Teaching Black History – that’s our One Big Thing.

Teaching Black History

NIALA: Florida last month rejected an advanced placement African-American studies classified schools, a course that some high schools nationwide had been piloting. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis says the course violates the quote Stop W.O.K.E Act, which he signed into law late last year.

It aims to restrict how educators handle topics like racism, slavery, and the nation's history of anti-black violence. Educators and historians have come out against the law and drove saying it infringes on their ability to do their jobs. Part of the law has already been blocked by a judge, and other lawsuits are in progress.

Marvin Dunn is a former college professor, public school principal, author and founder of Teach The Truth Tours aimed at discussing what happens when we restrict how educators teach history. He's also a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits over the new law.

As Black History Month begins, we're digging into this fight and into the history of Florida in particular. Professor Dunn, welcome to Axios Today. Thanks for being with us.

DR. MARVIN DUNN: Thank you for having me.

NIALA: As an educator first, can you give us some examples of what the Stop Woke Act practically means for Florida teachers and how it can actually change what's being allowed in the classroom?

DR. DUNN: You can talk about slavery, but you must discuss it objectively. I don't know how to objectively describe an enslaved woman having a baby ripped from her bosom and sold into slavery.

NIALA: I am a product of Miami-Dade County public schools. I didn't get a complete education about Florida's history. For example, I never learned about the Rosewood Massacre, where the town of Rosewood was burned to the ground and its Black residents terrorized by deadly violence for days in the 1920s. I learned about that as an adult. So you founded these Teach the Truth tours, which take people all over Florida to learn about the history of specific sites. What motivated you to do that?

DR. DUNN: These tours are for high school students with a parent or a grandparent. All expenses paid by us. And we go to places in Florida where the blood was shed. We go to places where people died at the hands of white mobs. And it's important, in my view, to take the kids and the parents and grandparents because the stories get passed down at the Thanksgiving table around the Christmas tree. These are very, very difficult tours, and they should be. So I, we wanted to create an experience that they would never forget. And when you take someone to Rosewood and you walk that ground, uh, you'll never forget that.

NIALA: Is this meant to be an alternative to public education then in Florida?

DR. DUNN: It is an alternative to public education in Florida. I can't imagine particularly under this government, school districts taking high school kids to places where these terrible things happen. Right now in Florida, the movement is away from teaching this history away from taking people to these, these places. So, uh, I, I fear that these stories will be lost. I fear that Rosewood will be lost. There's only one building standing in Rosewood today, The JW Wright house, the white man's home who protected some of the Blacks at that time, that house is endangered, and once it goes, we'll have no building in Rosewood that speaks back to 1923.

NIALA: Dr. Dunn, one aspect of the Stop W.O.K.E Act is a provision stating that students and employees should not be made to feel uncomfortable or guilty about actions done by other members of their race or ethnicity or gender. What is your response to that, when it comes to teaching history in this country?

DR. DUNN: They should not feel guilty. There's no reason to try to lay guilt on anybody. I don't see that happening. I've been in classrooms in Florida for 40 years. I've never in my life seen a teacher tell a student to feel guilty about something that happened 200 years ago. That is not happening in our schools.

NIALA: Dr. Marvin Dunn is an author, historian, and educator. He's a professor emeritus at Florida International University, one of my alma maters. Thanks, Dr. Dunn for being with us.

DR. DUNN: You're quite welcome. Thank you for having me.

NIALA: We also asked Gov. DeSantis's office for a comment on this conversation. Spokesman Bryan Griffith emailed us last night to say that the Stop Woke Act doesn't prohibit speech or ideas from free exchange. But what it does do is prohibit what he called forcing individuals to believe something. The statement said, quote "As we have seen so regularly in schools and workplaces tainted with DEI and CRT, these concepts are specifically designed and taught in a manner to convince people to adopt a certain proscribed ideology." We’ll put the full statement from the Governor’s office in our show notes.

In a moment - a new national survey takes the pulse of how educators are feeling.


A new survey takes the pulse of educator anxiety

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Teachers nationwide say they're feeling pressure to change how they teach gender and race. In a new RAND Corporation survey, a quarter of all teachers reported they're shifting their lessons and materials based on restrictions. Teachers are increasingly facing, even if they themselves are not facing restrictive laws in their state. Axios’ Russell Contreras has been covering the story. Hey, Russ.

RUSS CONTRERAS: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: So Russ, teachers are changing how they teach, not just because of laws like Florida Stop Woke Act, but because of anxiety. What is the fear?

RUSS: Well, teachers are concerned about a number of things. They're concerned about, one, losing their job. They're concerned about possibly, eh, getting a fine imposed on them or their district. They're also concerned about something else being shamed on social media and being shamed on social media can affect your reputation as an educator. It can also pose a risk to your life. A lot of teachers have been harassed at school board meetings. You've had college professors tell us they've had their lives threatened. You see a number of things while this debate is spreading since 2021 and to today.

NIALA: So what did that survey say about what teachers are reporting about how they're changing their methods?

RUSS: Well, the survey was interesting because it asked teachers an open-ended question, so what are you doing? Uh, as a response to that, some teachers said they're very reluctant to reintroduce lessons about, around Frederick Douglass, for example, or teaching the speeches of Martin Luther King. We do know that some states in imposing limitations have targeted books that once were not controversial, like the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, his speeches are the play by Lorraine Hansberry “A Raisin in the Sun.” In recent years, these are works that have been targeted to be removed from curriculum or outright banned. These limitations also include discussions around gender and sexuality. There's a number of books that talk about gay and lesbian issues, trans issues that are being removed. So it's also limitations about race and gender.

NIALA: So Russ, what does this mean for Black History Month in particular?

RUSS: Well, Black History Month, as you know, comes around every February and for many years it was a chance to introduce lessons to students, around people or works they may not be exposed to for the rest of the year. Educators are now reluctant to bring up, say, the March on Washington. They may be reluctant to bring up Jackie Robinson. They may say that he's a baseball player, but, they may not bring up why he was prevented from playing into Major League Baseball because of segregation. It really imposes limitations on how we discuss the truth.

NIALA: Axios’ Senior Race and Justice Reporter, Russell Contreras. Thank you.

RUSS: Thanks for having me.

Missing monkeys are just the latest in a series of strange events at the Dallas Zoo

NIALA: Now for the strangest news you’ll probably hear today – missing monkeys at the Dallas Zoo. Axios’ Michael Mooney has more.

MICHAEL MOONEY: Two emperor tamarin monkeys that were taken from the Dallas Zoo earlier this week were found in the closet of an empty home in Lancaster, a suburb south of town, according to a Dallas police spokesperson. This is the latest in a string of very strange incidents at the zoo over the last month.

Two weeks ago, Nova, a clouded leopard escaped the leopard enclosure through a cut in the mesh. Police believe it was intentional. The zoo also found a similar cut at the langur monkey’s enclosure though none of those monkeys escaped the exhibit. And last week, Pin, an endangered lappet-faced vulture was found dead with what police called an unusual wound.

Other zoos around the country have also experienced thefts over the last couple of months. 12 squirrel monkeys were reportedly stolen from a zoo in Louisiana over the weekend. Last year, two Galapagos tortoises were stolen from a zoo in Florida. And last summer a macaw was stolen from a zoo in New Mexico and later found dead.

NIALA: That’s Axios’ Dallas Reporter Michael Mooney.

NIALA: And that’s it for us today. I’m Niala Boodhoo – and by the way it goes without saying but stealing animals from zoos – is a very bad thing.

Thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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