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N.A.A.C.P. travel advisory names Florida as “actively hostile” to Black Americans

When you think of Florida, does your mind fill with visions of sandy beaches, Disney World, and Margaritaville or alligators, giant slugs, and MAGA-hat-wearing white locals? For many, Florida is a land of stark contradictions; a haven for refugees fleeing from Haiti and Cuba and a place from which migrants are bussed north to Massachusetts. It is home to the vibrant and racially-diverse city of Miami and the launching pad for Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ 2024 combative presidential bid.

What is DeSantis targeting? Well, just about everything that encompasses the accurate histories and equitable experiences of everyone who is not white, heterosexual, and male. In May he signed a bill into law restricting how race and gender can be taught in Florida’s public higher education institutions, a move which will make it incredibly difficult to attract, recruit, and retain racially-diverse students, faculty, and staff at the state’s colleges and universities. By banning general education courses that “distort” history and teach “identity politics” what DeSantis is really doing is attempting to enshrine a singular, Eurocentric vision of western history and prohibiting critical thought and multiple perspectives on complex histories like that of the colonial origins of the Unites States which, when properly taught, would obviously include perspectives, experiences, and understandings from black and indigenous populations and scholars about imperialism, colonization, and Transatlantic Slavery. As the N.A.A.C.P. President and CEO, Derrick Johnson stated, “Let me be clear – failing to teach an accurate representation of the horrors and inequalities that Black Americans have faced and continue to face is a disservice to students and a dereliction of duty to all.”

Obviously too, on a fundamental level, interfering with what and how professors teach is a breach of their intellectual freedom. In such an academic landscape, transformative courses like the powerful Visual Culture of Slavery, which our fearless leader, Prof. Charmaine A. Nelson, has successfully taught (working with her students to produce ground-breaking research outcomes like video catalogue essays and books) at Canadian and American universities (including Harvard) would cease to exist.

But not content to target black, Latino, and other communities of colour, in April DeSantis supported the state board’s approval to expand what critics have dubbed his “Don’t say gay” laws. This includes a ban across all age groups on education about sexual orientation and gender identity. When executives at Disney criticized DeSantis’ policies, he retaliated, moving to strip Disney – one of the state’s largest taxpayers – of its status as a special tax district.

The N.A.A.C.P.’s May 20th press release reads in part, “Florida is openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. Before traveling to Florida, please understand that the state of Florida devalues and marginalizes the contributions of, and the challenges faced by African Americans and other communities of color.”

While in recent times, Florida’s sharp political move to the far right arguably began with former President Donald Trump who used his Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago Club as his own personal Camp David, in the not-too-distant past (in 2008), the Florida state legislature officially expressed profound regret for the states’ history of slavery. Although Florida is often magically excised from the American South (and concomitantly the well-deserved stigmas of long-standing racial animus and segregation), Florida was – like Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina – a profitable centre of plantation slavery. By 1830, enslaved people were forced to produce corn, cotton, and rice on estates where white enslavers lived in luxury in Big Houses. As Prof. Diane Roberts has noted, “On the eve of the Civil War, Florida was one of the fastest growing slave states in the South and the third to secede [from the Union] after South Carolina and Mississippi.”

Sadly then, DeSantis’ vision of Florida is not a move away from a deep-seated liberal ethos, but the embrace of the state’s racist historical past. While the N.A.A.C.P. has accurately noted DeSantis’ attacks as dangerous for black Americans, his policies and laws have the power to harm all black people who dare to set foot in the “Sunshine State”. Thus, while the diverse and culturally-vibrant mecca of Miami might be beckoning, it behooves black people of all backgrounds to think twice before heading south.