Straight, white male? Florida’s GOP wants to protect you from ‘guilt’ and ‘anguish’ | Editorial

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/
·4 min read

A proposed law would “prevent all kinds of discrimination” at Florida public schools and workplaces, based on the principle that “all individuals are created equal” and that teachers should teach, not indoctrinate.

But despite the platitudes its sponsor used to describe Senate Bill 148 and House Bill 7, this is not an effort to stop real discrimination. The true intent of the legislation advancing in the Florida Senate is to provide state cover for students and employees offended by diversity training at private companies and by classroom lectures about racism, sexism and homophobia.

The plan is to subvert what we have historically considered as discrimination. And the way it’s happening is through a proposal aimed at protecting certain people — straight, white men, for the most part — whose sensitivities require shielding via state policing of what teachers and diversity trainers say.

Under the proposal, it’s possible that this group of people could claim discrimination if they feel uncomfortable during a discussion of, say, bias or racism. What an irony for a state government that often preaches against the dangers of big government and authoritarian regimes.

Dared to invoke MLK

SB 148 puts into official words Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” which stands for “Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees Act.” He announced the proposal last month at a rally-style news conference, where he dared to invoke Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to judge people on the content of their character, not on the color of their skin.

It’s under the pretense of following MLK’s teachings that Republicans in Florida and other states have banned critical race theory, an academic theory that looks at racism at the systemic level and how laws that appear to be neutral can propagate it.

Under the conservative narrative, discussing slavery, segregation and discrimination is fine as long as it’s a thing of history or an abstract concept that doesn’t make people question whether they are complicit in perpetuating bigotry.

The WOKE bill, filed by Hialeah Sen. Manny Diaz, has a veneer of social righteousness. It starts off stating that no training or instruction should compel people to believe that “members of one race, color, sex or national origin are morally superior,” and that no “individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex or national origin.”

Sounds good, except the legislation leaves plenty of room for someone to claim “discrimination” based on discomfort — which is sometimes bound to be part of discussions that seek to make people reflect on their own prejudices.

The bill bans training that makes people feel they “bear responsibility” for “actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex or national origin,” or that compels people to believe they should “receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity or inclusion” — which appears to be aimed at affirmative action.

The bill’s absurdity was best explained by Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, at a Tuesday Senate committee hearing: “You’re convoluting what discrimination is. You can’t say people feel guilty about other people’s discrimination and now they can sue — under discrimination.”

White students or workers shouldn’t be singled out for the sins of slave owners. Nor is any individual man is responsible for gender inequalities. But beyond that, is blaming and finger pointing happening at such great levels at public schools and workplaces that we need a new state law to combat it? Diaz said at the hearing he’s heard from “individual parents with concerns” but didn’t provide any examples to justify his bill.

Drumming up outrage

It’s easier to drum up outrage against esoteric enemies like critical race theory and “wokeness” than it is to outline real problems. Vague concepts (how many people actually know what critical race theory even means?) wind up with vague fixes that people with an ax to grind can then abuse.

Could a male employee file a complaint after sitting through sexual harassment training because it makes him feel targeted by a trainer who says it is often women who accuse men of such conduct? Could training on unconscious bias — the stereotypes we are unaware of having about certain groups of people — violate the proposed law by making people believe they are “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive whether consciously or unconsciously?”

There were no real answers to these questions at the Tuesday hearing.

Diaz said diversity training is fine as long as it’s “objective” and people cannot be made to feel “guilty of it as an individual.” Complaints, he added, would have to be “evidence based.”

But just their simple threat would have a chilling effect on teachers and private businesses. That appears to be the real intent of SB 148.

Diaz said he wants schools to talk about the “dark parts” of American history and that his bill allows teachers to talk about sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation and racial discrimination. But, again, that should be done “objectively” and without indoctrination.

But what is objectiveness and who gets to define it? In this case, it’s the party in power in Florida, and Republicans will use every bit of political capital to redefine what discrimination is and who its victims are.

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