Florida's Anti-CRT Law is Influencing Professors to Cancel Classes on RaceHistorians in the News
tags: Florida, culture war, teaching history, critical race theory, Ron DeSantis
Jonathan Cox faced an agonizing decision. He was scheduled to teach two classes this past fall at the University of Central Florida that would explore colorblind racism, the concept that ostensibly race-neutral practices can have a discriminatory impact. The first, “Race and Social Media,” featured a unit on “racial ideology and color-blindness.” The second, “Race and Ethnicity,” included a reading on “the myth of a color-blind society.” An assistant sociology professor, Cox had taught both courses before; they typically drew 35 to 40 undergraduates apiece.
As recently as August 2021, Cox had doubted that the controversy over critical race theory — which posits, among other things, that racism is ingrained in America’s laws and power structure — would hamstring his teaching. Asked on a podcast what instructors would do if, as anticipated, Florida restricted the teaching of CRT in higher education, he said that they would need to avoid certain buzzwords. “What many of us are looking at doing is just maybe shifting some of the language that we’re using.”
But a clash with state law seemed inevitable, once Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, proposed what he called the strongest legislation in the nation against “the state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory.” Last April, DeSantis signed the Individual Freedom Act, also known as the “Stop Woke Act,” into law. It bans teaching that one race or gender is morally superior to another and prohibits teachers from making students feel guilty for past discrimination by members of their race. And it specifically bars portraying racial colorblindness — which the law labels a virtue — as racist. A DeSantis spokesperson, Jeremy Redfern, told me in an email that the law “protects the open exchange of ideas” (italics in the original) by prohibiting teachers from “forcing discriminatory concepts on students.”
Whatever one thinks of critical race theory, the state’s interference limits the freedom of professors who are experts in their fields to decide what to teach their students. Cox worried, not without reason, that the law effectively banned him from discussing his ideas in class, and that teaching the courses could cost him his livelihood. Cox, who is the only Black professor in the sociology department, will not be considered for tenure until this fall. His salary was his family’s only income while his wife stayed home with their baby.
With uncertain support from above, most full and associate professors at least enjoy the protection of tenure, which shields scholars whose insights or research are politically unpopular. Tenured professors can’t be fired without cause and a hearing by their peers. Other faculty typically work on contracts, which the university can decide not to renew without specifying a reason.
Some tenured professors in Florida have resisted anti-CRT pressure. The historian Robert Cassanello, the president of the UCF chapter of United Faculty of Florida, was comfortable becoming a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits contending that the Individual Freedom Act violates free speech. Cassanello, who keeps a life-size cutout of Karl Marx in his office window, told me that he’s less threatened by the law than his untenured colleagues are.
In the past, when academic freedom was threatened, tenure proved to be one of its most effective defenses. During the McCarthy era, when tenured professors were accused of having Communist sympathies, “their institutions had to go through the motions of a formal investigation,” the historian Ellen Schrecker wrote in “No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism & the Universities.” “Non-tenured teachers had no such rights.” The Cornell physicist Philip Morrison, an ex-Communist who remained politically active, “could not be quietly dropped from the faculty” in the early 1950s, at the height of the Red Scare, because he had tenure, and he was eventually promoted to full professor.
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