The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in February. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Florida legislature approved a bill on Thursday that limits how workplaces and schools teach about race and identity, all but securing a victory for state Republicans to more closely control how these issues are covered in classrooms.

The measure prohibits trainings that cause someone to feel guilty or ashamed about the past collective actions of their race or sex, and its passage clears the way for Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to sign one of his top legislative priorities into law.

Thursday’s vote again places Florida at the forefront of a simmering national political and cultural debate as legislatures across the country move to restrict how race and other sensitive topics are taught in public classrooms. The battles have been especially intense across the South and parts of the Midwest, as White Republican lawmakers have clashed with their Black colleagues. Six weeks ago, the entire Black delegation of the Mississippi Senate walked out when that chamber considered a similar measure.

In Tallahassee, after two days of emotional debate on a proposal that remains clouded by considerable confusion, the Senate passed the framework for the “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.

Earlier this week, the Florida Senate also voted to regulate lessons about sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary schools, a proposal that has been panned by the White House, late-night comedians, and both employees and corporate leaders of the Walt Disney Co.

In his fight against ‘woke’ schools, DeSantis tears at the seams of a diverse Florida

This latest proposal is also exposing deep divisions within Florida, a diverse state that relies on workers from across the globe to power its tourism-driven economy. The proposal is part of a broader national debate over an intellectual movement known as critical race theory, which some Republicans falsely argue is being widely taught in schools.

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

“This bill is about fear,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson (D). “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). Jones looked directly at his Republican colleagues as he recounted Florida’s past of racial massacres and lynchings. “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 shepherded the proposal through the Senate. “But what we can control is to have a teacher not go to a student … and impose on a 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?”

Senate 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” and 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.”

Although most Republican senators stayed silent during the debate, Sen. Kelli Stargel (R) highlighted her own family’s history to defend the measure.

Stargel, a sixth-generation Floridian who is White, said that her grandfather lost his reelection as a Central Florida sheriff in the early 1900s because he resisted attempts by White vigilantes to lynch Black prisoners.

“I would agree with the comments made today that we all have a stain on our history because of the actions of some,” Stargel said. “But I would have a real hard time if my children had to sit in a classroom and be told that they need to feel guilt and shame for what happened.”

“I think my grandchildren have the ability to stand tall and proud for the behavior of [my] grandfather, for what he did, and what he sacrificed for another man and another race,” she added.

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 a 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 the 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.

The pushback from segments of corporate America comes as DeSantis is already locked in a testy battle with Disney, which has about 60,000 employees in Florida, over the bill approved Tuesday that bans lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary school.

After some Disney employees pushed CEO Bob Chapek to speak out against the legislation, Chapek told shareholders on Wednesday that he would meet with DeSantis to discuss the matter.

But on Thursday, DeSantis said there was “zero” chance he would back down due to pressure from “woke corporations” or “fraudulent media narratives.”

“When you have companies that made a fortune of being family friendly, and catering to families and young kids they should understand that parents of young kids do not want this injected into their kid’s kindergarten classroom,” DeSantis told a roomful of supporters, according to a video that was obtained by Fox News and later shared by the governor’s spokeswoman on social media.

The governor’s remarks were yet another example of his pugnacious style as he eyes a possible 2024 presidential run. In his campaign-style speeches in front of conservative activists, the governor frequently touts his anti-woke proposals, like the one the Florida Senate passed Thursday.

At a recent speech 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.”

“I also want Florida to be known as a brick wall against all things ‘woke,’ ” DeSantis said. “This is where ‘woke’ goes to die.”

But Black lawmakers say the war against “woke” leaves them wondering what part of their history will be kept out of school lessons. “Slavery happened. Massacres happened. ... Jim Crow happened. George Floyd happened,” said Sen. Bobby Powell (D).

“When you tell the story,” he added, “tell it all.”