Following DeSantis’ lead, Florida lawmakers take aim at race discussions

Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at William A. Kirlew Junior Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist K-8 school in Miami Gardens, in 2019. (DAVID SANTIAGO/dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com)
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The Republican majority on the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday advanced a measure that attempts to tackle one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top legislative priorities: barring the influence of critical race theory in schools and businesses across Florida.

But as lawmakers start work on the proposal, they have not yet included a key part of the governor’s election-year agenda. Giving parents, students and workers the ability to sue if they feel they have been exposed to the influence of critical race theory at school or at work is not in the bill language.

The proposed legislation does not offer those legal enforcement powers, but rather it seeks to restrict discussions that would make workers and students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.”

“If we are imposing on a student that just because they are white, they are anti-immigrant and that view is being imposed on them as an individual, that would be a violation of this bill,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, a Hialeah Republican sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

Diaz could not cite specific examples in which something like that has taken place in Florida but said some senators heard concerns from “individual parents.”

Senate Democrats argued the proposed legislation is vague and that its broad definitions of what should and shouldn’t be discussed about race, would lead to frivolous lawsuits and chill discussions in K-12 schools.

“All this legislation is going to do is promote ignorance about race-related content,” said Senate Education Committee Vice Chair Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. “There is no claim here in the state of Florida that teachers are teaching children that white people are inherently racist or that white people should feel shame because of past injustices.”

What the bill does

Diaz defended the measure, saying its intent is to serve as a “guard against having that ever occur in the classroom.”

“I think it is a very narrow line, but the fact is we have a state of 21 million where we have 67 school districts and there are a vast number of classrooms within those systems and individual teachers have a way in which they present things,” he said.

The proposed guidelines in the bill say teachers may facilitate discussion to address “how the freedoms of person have been infringed by sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination including topics relating to the enactment and enforcement of laws resulting in sexism, racial oppression, racial segregation and racial discrimination.”

But teachers may not use that instruction to “indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular view point.”

Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, worried that the broad language will confuse teachers about what would constitute teaching and what would be considered indoctrination when discussing issues of race and gender.

“Teachers will be afraid of opening their mouths about the subjects in this bill,” she said.

When disputes emerge, Berman wondered, who will be the arbiter?

Diaz said complaints could be vetted by school administrators during the teacher evaluation process. If there is a “valid case with evidence,” the complaint may go to the Department of Education, he said.

The complaint process outlined by Diaz is the same process that DeSantis attacked in a press conference last month in which he called critical race theory “crap” and “state-sanctioned racism.”

He said parents needed a legal avenue to sue school districts directly because districts don’t always follow the law, a gripe that stems from the school mask mandate issue over the summer in which several school districts imposed strict mask mandates with only a medical opt-out, which DeSantis opposed.

“Honestly, the parents know best of what’s going on and they’re in the best position,” DeSantis said last month. “And here is the thing, a lot of time, these people will fear lawsuits more than a fine from the state Department of Education.”

DeSantis backers want more in the bill

At Tuesday’s meeting, some of the governor’s supporters noted that the bill does not go far enough. They noted they would like to see it amended as it moved through the legislative process.

“We were really excited when the governor announced the right of action on the part of the parents. We would like to see that included,” said Keith Flaugh, the managing director of Florida Citizens Alliance, a right-leaning group that has tried to shape education policy in Florida.

The governor’s proposal in December was an escalation of his attack on the concept of critical race theory, a 1980s legal concept that holds that racial disparities are systemic in the United States, not just a collection of individual prejudices.

Diaz’s bill does not explicitly mention critical race theory, but it touches on its themes, particularly in the provision that notes what types of discussions “relating to the enactment and enforcement of laws resulting in sexism, racial oppression, racial segregation and racial discrimination.”

Senate Bill 148 also tried to touch on what DeSantis has described as “corporate wokeness.”

Last month, he urged lawmakers to target a “whole cottage industry” of consultants who are paid to inject critical race theory into classroom lessons and workplace training. Diaz’s bill does not include action against consultants.

DeSantis said Florida will not allow corporations to offer training that encourages participants to be “woke at work” or that tell workers that “America is fundamentally racist.”

Diaz’s bill would make it unlawful for employers to subject employees to training and workplace activities that teach those concepts. The bill would also bar private employers from promoting the idea that a “person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity or inclusion.”

“I am telling you, this is going to open up the floodgates to frivolous lawsuits,” said Democratic state Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton lawyer. “This is opening up an entirely new category with how someone feels about training, for example, or actions that an employer is taking.”

Polsky said the language in the bill could potentially allow men receiving sexual harassment training to claim discrimination, or allow a white man to sue if their Black colleague gets a promotion over them.

“As a body, we are much better than this. We are much better than what the national popular politics is taking place,” Jones said. “All that this is is red meat that is taking place. All this is going to do is create a more divisive nature here within our political structure in the state of Florida.”

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