So much of this country’s history has been the fight over whether we will move forward or backward. The misappropriation of the term “woke” clearly takes us backward.
As the first Black woman to serve as chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, I have watched Gov. Ron DeSantis tout Florida as a place where “woke comes to die” and himself as leading the “war on woke.”
Those who join that war reveal a desire to bury our nation’s history of systemic injustice and are creating a generation of children doomed to repeat a past they don’t know and certainly can’t understand.
To continue the progress toward making this nation the cradle of democracy and a true melting pot, we must ensure that all citizens are educated in civics and un-whitewashed history.
The principles of democracy that we once learned in secondary school are now rarely part of the curriculum, and schools teach a version of history that ignores the full story about our founding, the peoples who came here, and the expansion of this country.
The deliberate misappropriation of “woke” is a disturbing trend that can’t remain unchallenged. Politicians have hijacked the word to use as a shorthand insult for any effort to promote inclusivity, civility, and basic kindness.
“Woke” is not a focus on any political party or an attack on general societal norms. Rather, it highlights history that is fundamental to issues that still plague people of color.
My forefathers who crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Africa—sick, emaciated, and bound in chains—had no other choice except death. And some of them chose death. Those who survived had no choice but to work, day and night, at backbreaking labor to enrich other people and help build this country. This is American history.
Slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, voter suppression, and other forms of systemic racial discrimination are American history. “Woke” and “critical race theory” are about preserving this history.
Too many Americans are unaware of the many instances where Black communities made financial progress, only to be met with fierce oppression. Incidents such as the Black Wall Street and Rosewood massacres are as relevant to a picture of our whole history as the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Declaration of Independence, and the US Constitution. They are a much a part of our past as the Indian Wars, the settlement of Jamestown, the Boston Tea Party, or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
We can’t allow these topics to be erased from our history books because a politician decrees that a White student might “feel bad.”
We must be “woke” to the lessons from the past and address the present-day events that demonstrate our country is far from a race-neutral, colorblind society. Assaults on the First Amendment and education in our country happen every day. See the Tennessee legislature’s expulsion of two Black legislators who protested the failure to enact gun safety measures, while allowing the third White legislative protestor to retain her seat. Or see Florida’s passage of legislation that outlaws the truthful teaching of Black history.
Understanding the actual meaning of “woke” and “critical race theory” is foundational to preserving the un-sanitized history of this country. Politicians misuse these terms to denigrate any idea or situation they want to quash and to appeal to some of their constituents’ base instincts.
At its core, the term “woke” simply means to be aware of and alert to racial prejudice and discrimination. It is a synonym for pointing to the systemic injustices that African Americans and other people of color continue to face. “Critical race theory” is an academic framework for research on how racial disparities have been embedded in law and organizational structures.
If we as Americans aren’t allowed to understand how systemic racial discrimination shaped our history, then we will allow the injustices to continue unabated. We must not let politicians with their own selfish visions of greatness have the final word on what can be taught to our children and to future generations. Our democracy depends on it.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Peggy A. Quince, the first African American female justice to serve on the Florida Supreme Court and as chief justice, is a member of the board of Lawyers Defending American Democracy.
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