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Editorial

TO BE EQUAL: DeSantis on the Wrong Side of History

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

― George Orwell, “1984”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Photo: Gage Skidmore

The Jacksonville ballfield where Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron played as a 19-year-old minor leaguer in 1953 now bears his name.

It’s where he and two of his teammates, Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner, endured hostile taunts from fans. Off the field, they received death threats. When the team traveled, they couldn’t stay at the same hotels where other teammates stayed or eat with them at the same restaurants.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis doesn’t want the high school students who play on that field — at least the white ones — to know why. Other governors and elected officials, looking to capitalize on the racial resentment and white grievance DeSantis hopes will propel him into the White House, are following his lead. This insidious campaign is an effort not merely to warp Americans’ view of our past, but to thwart the dismantling of systemic and institutional racism.

To paraphrase an old business adage, you can’t manage what you can’t measure, and you can’t measure what you can’t see.

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White students might feel “guilt” or “anguish” to learn that Aaron was forced to hide under his bed as a child when the Ku Klux Klan marched through town. Or that after he and his teammates ate in a Washington, D.C., restaurant, they listened as the staff shattered every dish they’d used. Or that he received as many as 3,000 racists, threatening letters a day as he closed in on Babe Ruth’s home run record.

That’s why school administrators in Duval County, where Jacksonville is located, temporarily barred the children’s book “Henry Aaron’s Dream” from its libraries and classrooms. Other books kept off the shelves were “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates,” “Thank You, Jackie Robinson” and “Women Who Broke the Rules: Sonia Sotomayor.”

Following a nationwide outcry, those books and others that broached the topics of racism and discrimination have been reinstated, and DeSantis has tried to pass off the ban as “a joke” and a publicity stunt. But DeSantis’ own Stop WOKE Act, which restricts the discussion of race and diversity in schools, and the Parental Rights in Education law — better known as “Don’t Say Gay” — explicitly require the reviews that forced the district to remove the books.

Among the 47 books the district returned to the publisher after the review was “The Life of Rosa Parks” and “Separate is Never Equal.”

Politicians in other states are embracing the DeSantis “Stop WOKE” ploy like cynical moths drawn to the flames of a burning cross.

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At least 36 states have adopted or introduced laws or policies that restrict teaching about race and racism. In North Dakota teachers are effectively forbidden to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism. Researcher Jeffrey Sachs, who tracks such legislation for PEN America, said, “The law now is saying that whenever a teacher talks about racism, they may only describe it as a product of an individual’s own biases or prejudices. They cannot describe it — even when the facts command them to — as something more endemic or embedded within American society.

“It’s a way essentially of preventing teachers, I think, from being honest about a lot of the uglier sides of American history and contemporary society.”

If DeSantis and his imitators get their way, our schools will produce an entire generation of Americans oblivious to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, to the decades of redlining that shaped our communities, trapping families within an endless cycle of poverty and violence, to the pervasive myths that deny Black patients medical treatment and pain relief.

When Americans saw the images of Elizabeth Eckford taunted by racists as she entered Little Rock Central High School, of Alabama state troopers bludgeoning John Lewis on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, of police dogs attacking teenagers in Birmingham, they were galvanized into action by what they saw. DeSantis and his imitators have learned the wrong lessons from history. They want to make sure no one else learns the right ones.

Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.

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