Florida Legislature passes bill that limits how schools and workplaces teach about race and identity

After two days of emotional debate on a proposal that remains clouded by considerable confusion, the Senate passed the framework for the so-called “Stop Woke Act” 24 to 15, in a party-line vote. DeSantis initially proposed the bill in December, arguing he wanted Florida to become a bulwark against corporate trainings and school lessons that make people uncomfortable about the actions of their ancestors.

The proposal has resulted in deep divisions within Florida, a diverse state that relies on workers from across the globe to power its tourism-driven economy. The debate comes as Republican-controlled legislators around the country are pushing similar laws, falsely arguing that an academic theory known as critical race theory is widely taught in public schools.

The battles over critical race theory – which Florida already banned from classrooms last year – is resulting in emotional struggles in legislative bodies across the South and parts of the Midwest, often pitting White conservative lawmakers against their Black colleagues. Six weeks ago, the entire Black delegation of the Mississippi Senate walked out when that chamber considered a similar measure.

During the debate at Florida’s state capitol on Thursday, Black lawmakers spoke about their struggles against racism and bigotry to personally plead with with their colleagues to oppose this proposal.

“This bill is about fear,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson (D), who is Black. “Not fear of someone feeling guilt, but fear of our young people coming together to tear down walls of division that some people want to keep up … The bill makes it okay to talk about Pilgrims coming over on ships, but not a race of people coming who came over on slave ships.”

“You can’t say you support me, and then you use the word ‘but’,” added Sen. Shevrin Jones (D), who is also Black. Jones looked directly at his Republican colleagues as recounted Florida’s past of racial massacres. “Florida is the South, but I can tell you this, we are not there no more, just in case you didn’t know it,” he said.

Under the initial draft of the bill released in January, Florida schools and businesses would have been barred from mandating that students or employees attend diversity trainings that cause any individual to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress.” The bill was later amended to clarify those feelings must be linked to lessons or diversity trainings that imply someone is responsible for actions “committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex or national origin.”

“It’s not about the feel. We can’t control how a person feels about a topic,” said Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Republican from Miami-Dade who shepherd the proposal through the Senate. “But what we can control is to have a teacher not go to a student … and impose on male student that they are sexist simply because they are a considered a male.”

Diaz, a Cuban American, spoke of how his ancestors fled to Florida because they wanted a free and open education system. “Don’t impose guilt on a student based on a group they belong to,” he said.

But Florida Democrats, racial justice advocates and some corporate leaders say the bill is another attempt by the Florida GOP to whitewash history including the legacy of slavery here and across the country.

“Is it possible to talk about slavery, or the fact that White people not Black people were enslavers,” Gibson asked. “How does that conversation go so nobody feels or has the imposition of guilt or compelled to feel guilty?”

Sen. Minority Leader Lauren Book (D) also questioned whether Florida public colleges and universities will be able to offer courses exploring ideas like “white privilege,” a phrase that implies White Americans have had built-in advantages in U.S. society compared to other minority groups.

Diaz responded such lessons could continue so long as it is “taught as a topic” so long as a teacher doesn’t act “like a judge and say ‘you are guilty of this.’”

“Discussing a topic and having someone say they feel something is not covered under this bill,” Diaz said. “You just can’t assign that specifically to that person.”

Under the bill, a student or employee who feels that their school or employer has violated the act can pursue damages under Florida’s civil rights laws.

Democrats argued the legislation could have chilling impact on Florida corporations and businesses that strive to foster collegial workplaces through diversity trainings.

Sen. Annette Taddeo (D), a candidate in the Democratic primary for governor this year, noted that Florida hosts more than 100 million visitors and tourists annually, and the businesses that cater to those tourists rely on workers from across the globe.

Workplace diversity trainings, Taddeo noted, are often designed to help shield companies from federal anti-discrimination laws.

“We are a welcoming state, and we want companies to come here, and we want companies to not have to think of having different trainings in Florida versus other places,” Taddeo said.

In recent weeks, the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida has been circulating a joint letter from 24 Florida business groups as well as companies such as H&M U.S., J. Crew Group, and Levi Strauss & Co. urging lawmakers to reject legislation.

“This legislation creates a burdensome patchwork of special rules, making it more onerous to operate and provide equitable workplace opportunities in Florida, “ the letter stated.

At a speech in late February before the Federalist Society, DeSantis said his chief goal was to “defund” the consultants who work with universities and employers to offer diversity trainings. He also accused corporations of shoving divisive trainings “down peoples’ throats.”

“My goal would be, when they think of the ‘free state,’” DeSantis said. “But I also want Florida to be known as a brick wall against all things ‘woke.’ This is where ‘woke’ goes to die.”

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