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Florida has become the site of unremitting political violence carried out by the state’s Republican majority, coordinated by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, and fueled by the Pandora’s box of racial anxiety by Donald Trump. Their actions represent an unfortunate but predictable return to a political playbook that dates back to Reconstruction.
Scholar Carol Anderson and activist Rev. Dr. William Barber regularly call out what they term “policy violence” – the historic use of legislation to maintain White and wealthy socioeconomic status quo to the detriment of racial minorities and the poor. Anderson, in her book “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide,” traces forms of racialized violence which have occurred in America whenever racial minorities, especially Black Americans, achieved signiﬁcant advancement in their status. This violence was not always physical, Anderson points out. White leaders also used legislation and policy to codify their dominance politically, socially, and economically. Historically, policy violence has taken the form of voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, redlining, and mandatory minimum sentences, among many others. Rev. Barber, for instance, has called out the nation’s lack of investment in affordable healthcare a form of violence, especially when people die “not because God called them home, but because of bad policies made by public ofﬁcials.”
The modern practice of racialized policy violence can be traced back to Emancipation and Reconstruction, when legislation at the federal level worked to incorporate approximately four million formerly enslaved Blacks into the nation’s body politic with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Meanwhile, at the state and local level, as Blacks activated their newly-won rights – with Black men voting, running for, and achieving elected ofﬁce at the local, state, and national level – their advancement was met not only by physical violence – including beatings, pogroms, and lynching’s – but also by a more impactful form of political violence. While the terror of physical violence was enough to dissuade many from exercising their rights, Whites in Florida and throughout the South, as a practical matter, enacted laws at the state level that undermined the intention of the 15th Amendment’s expansion of the right to vote to Black men with literacy tests and felony disenfranchisement.
Both then and now, attacks on the voting rights of minority citizens remain a fundamental and highly effective method of achieving and maintaining political domination. The political Compromise of 1877 – which revolved around the contested results of the 1876 presidential election due to violence and disruption in several southern states, including Florida – allowed Republican Rutherford B. Haynes to claim the White House in exchange for the removal of federal troops from the South. The loss of this federal presence opened the door to further violence against Black people, especially those with political aspirations. Next, policies embedded in Florida’s 1889 Constitution drastically reduced the ability of Black men to vote and run for ofﬁce. The impact was dramatic. For example, after Josiah T. Walls left the U.S. House of Representatives in 1877, Florida did not send another African American to Washington, DC for 115 years, a shameful streak that was broken with the election of Carrie P. Meek in 1992. Felon disenfranchisement, a racist holdover from the days of Reconstruction, wasn’t undone in Florida until the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018, after 180 years since these laws were put into place, and nearly 150 years after they were weaponized to target Black voters. Predictably, this victory of voting rights generated further legal and legislative assault from Florida Republicans who resurrected an old form of poll taxes in a new form of ﬁnes and fees, yet again curtailing voting rights in the state.
Just recently we have seen conservative politicians in Florida revive this legislative playbook yet again. Just days ago, a US federal court blocked Florida Senate Bill 90, passed in 2021, as an unconstitutional impediment to voting rights, most especially for older voters, voters of color, students, and the differently-abled. The law limits accessibility to voting drop boxes, and, bewilderingly, prohibits basic hospitality like water and food to voters who are in line waiting to vote; the last an insult to the injury of reducing the number of voting sites in Black districts, causing hours-long lines. Now Gov. DeSantis has set his sights on another tool to attack the electoral rights of the state’s Black voters: redistricting. He rejected an updated congressional map, instead recommending a radical revision to two districts represented by two Democratic Black legislators – US Reps. Val Demings (FL-10) and Al Lawson Jr. (FL-5). “DeSantis made it clear that his ultimate objective was to cut the number of African Americans and Hispanic Americans serving in Congress, so today’s veto is no surprise,” said Lawson in a statement addressing the governor’s actions. “The fact that DeSantis justiﬁes his goal to create racial disparities in congressional representation by citing the constitutional amendment created following the Civil War for the very purpose of remedying those same disparities is absurd and will be soundly rejected by any credible judge.”
The wave of political violence is only the most recent in a troubling run of oppressive legislation curtailing the ability of Black Floridians to effectively exercise their civil rights. Last year, DeSantis’ ﬁrst legislative priority was HB1, an anti-protest bill that criminalized the right to protest and legitimized vehicular homicide against protestors. It was a direct reaction of the Racial Reckoning of 2020, which sparked historic protests around the nation after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Further, the law encourages the type of vehicular assault that killed Heather Heyer during the Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017. Ironically in July 2021, after the passage of the law, protesters marching in support of Cuba blocked the Palmetto Parkway in north Miami-Dade County, backing up trafﬁc for hours, without the anti-protest law being enforced, presumably because Miami-Dade’s Cuban voters are a reliable Republican voting bloc. The selective application of HB1 is further evidence of the law’s original target and intent.
During this past legislative session, DeSantis championed what he called his Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act, which was his regurgitation of anti-Critical Race Theory legislation currently in vogue among conservatives. With the deceptive title of “Racial and Sexual Discrimination,” Senate Bill 242 and House Bill 57 in essence criminalizes instruction or training in public schools or workplaces that would make individuals feel guilty for being White or male. The vagueness of this law will effectively silence critical analysis of US history and the nation’s lengthy record, dating back to well-before its founding, of erecting and maintaining systems that privilege whiteness.
The basic facts of America’s racial history, especially where it concerns people of African and indigeneous descent, call into question its alleged national and moral superiority which many political and religious conservatives claim. While there is much to praise in the progress the US has made towards equality and inclusion, racial and political violence against Black history has a long and persistent presence that must be examined and discussed in order to make progress. As is the case most often, the cure lies in understanding the disease itself. Critical Race Theory is a legitimate ﬁeld of study established by generations of brilliant scholars of color who have decoded the practice of systemic racism that has been insidiously encoded into the nation’s legal system. Ironically, their studies have not only named but predicted the current onslaught of policy violence in which DeSantis is currently engaged. It would be trite to say what’s old is new again when it’s clear that what’s old never really went away in the ﬁrst place.
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