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New Florida Education Bill Targets Diversity Programs, Could Affect Black Greek Organizations

FL Governor Ron DeSantis pictured. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

House Bill 999 from the Florida legislature takes further steps at controlling what Florida college students can study and limits diversity, equity and inclusion. 

The bill falls in line with the Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stated war on “wokeness, critical race theory (CRT) and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).  

DeSantis has been a central figure in this movement by the right. In 2022, he passed bills like the Individual Freedom Act aka, “Stop WOKE Act,” which was blocked by federal courts both in November of last year and once again in March, and also the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act aka the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. 

HB 999, also titled, Public Postsecondary Educational Institutions was first introduced by Republican Rep. Alex Andrade on Feb. 21. The latest version of the bill is still pending in the Florida legislature but would go into effect on July 1 if passed.

The bill bans any school funding of campus activities that “espouse diversity, equity, or inclusion or critical race theory rhetoric.” It further eliminates any majors or minors “based on unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content,” or related to critical theory which would encompass critical race theory, radical feminist theory and queer theory, according to the bill. 

The third aspect deals with faculty as it prohibits DEI or CRT from being a factor in the hiring of professors and allows the college’s board of trustees to be able to review and revoke professors tenure. Lastly, it empowers Florida’s Board of Governors to enforce the bill across Florida’s different colleges and universities.

There has been significant pushback from students, educators and others, including groups like The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), a federation of 75 scholarly organizations. 

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“If it passes, it ends academic freedom in the state’s public colleges and universities, with dire consequences for their teaching, research, and financial well-being,” read a statement from the ACLS. 

Opponents of the bill have pointed out the vague language of the bill. Because it’s unclear how the law would be interpreted, there are questions about how multicultural student organizations such as student unions or Black fraternities and sororities could potentially be negatively impacted. 

Sen. Shevrin Jones, Democrat, FL., has spoken out against the piece of legislation, writing a piece on the MSNBC website. The Hilltop spoke with Sen. Jones, who is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated, spoke about why these efforts from DeSantis and the Florida Republicans are problematic for Black fraternities and sororities.

“They are trying to dismantle programs that promote diversity, equity and inclusion, social activism and political activism…our fraternities and sororities fall into that category…you have politicians that are asking questions about the need for these types of organizations, the need for HBCUs. And these questions on the surface are problematic,” Jones said. 

On Mar. 13, during a Florida House committee hearing, Andrade said that “student activities are not included,” clarifying that events funded by students would not be affected and that the bill would only involve events conducted by administration and professors. 

However, Democratic Rep. Yvonne Hudson highlighted how the vague language in the bill could negatively impact student events hosted by the multicultural organization and Black fraternities and sororities. 

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Also, Democratic Rep. Angie Nixon attempted to offer an amendment to the bill which would have deliberately protected those organizations from being prohibited with school funds. However, it was voted down by the Republican House. 

According to Jones, DeSantis and his colleagues are “determined to take Florida back to a time before women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color were deemed respective, valued members of society.”

“They’ve basically doubled down on attacks on academic freedom with a bill that will effectively silence faculty and students across the ideological spectrum, and basically purge whole fields of study from public universities,” he said. 

Jones emphasized that change won’t take place until students take a stand. 

“Politicians are not going to save this. People are going to have to step in…young people are going to have to step in and save what we’re seeing in this dismantling of what we know as our democratic process,” he explained. 

Morgann Phillips, a Howard University graduating senior and the president of the Alpha Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, at Howard echoes those sentiments, as she sees this moment as both “hopeful” and “empowering” and believes Black Greek organizations and students across the board should be taking the opportunity to organize and fight back.

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“While it’s concerning, it’s also an opportunity for us to band together and fight for our rights just like our founders did, and just like generations before us have always done,” Phillips said.

“We do have the capacity to organize. So I would love it if students would pay attention to this and really rally together, figure out different solutions and just advocate for ourselves,” she continued.

Phillips says being a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated is important to her as being surrounded by many like-minded individuals that are committed to service like her is “very special.” She also added that all students should be able to be comfortable in being able to express themselves fully. 

“If you don’t have those spaces where you can be authentic and you’re not showing up as your authentic self then it is really just detrimental to your own development,” Phillips said.

Students have already been making their voices heard including students with Florida Agricultural and Mechanical Univeristy’s National Pan-Hellenic Council who spoke out against the bill and the importance of Black Greek organizations during the Mar. 13 hearing. 

In Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Nebraska and more, there have been multiple instances of students protesting and rallying against different cases dealing with the wave of right-wing education bills that they believe directly attack the rights and protections of non-white students and LGBTQ students.

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DeSantis announced his targeting of DEI back in January — the same month he and the Florida Department of Education rejected an Advanced Placement Black history course from the College Board for its “lack of educational value.”

How Are Students Reacting

Samuel Barnes, a Howard student and Republican from Houston says he supports Gov. DeSantis’ efforts in reforming education and, at this time, he would support DeSantis for president over other Republicans. 

Barnes says he believes public education has a “heavily liberal bias” and further that “woke” ideology and “CRT” are issues in education “because they promote divisiveness between races, are based off of envy and resentment toward the successful while doing nothing to actually uplift marginalized people.”

“Due to the overwhelming number of liberal educators that what often is just the opinion of liberals tends to get presented as fact, and any conservative opinion is branded as wrong/hateful….this shouldn’t happen as the main purpose of a university should be to promote healthy and constructive debate on issues between people with opposing opinions,” Barnes said.

The term “critical race theory” has become one of the big buzzwords used by right wing leaders. The term comes from a law theory originated from legal scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell. 

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Many on the right have claimed without evidence that CRT is being indoctrinated into students across the U.S. throughout the education system.

When asked how he is identifying critical race theory, Barnes said he was using the term as shorthand for the idea that “The U.S. is a systemically racist country and that all whites have privileges that Blacks do not have in 2023.”

To define, woke, Barnes said that it was “hard to define,” but in his opinion it is “the set of beliefs that traditional society is systemically oppressive to marginalized groups, such as POC, women, LGBTQ+ people, etc., and the only way to get rid of oppression is to dismantle those societal institutions.”

“It may or may not be explicitly taught in school but it is still taught indirectly via framing of certain narratives of oppressor versus oppressed and focusing heavily on racial, sexuality, and gender,” he continued. 

Conversely, Evan Quaintance, an honors political science major at Howard and the political director for the Howard University College Democrats from Florida, says, “The censorship of our history should worry any and everyone.” Quantance says he was “heartbroken” to see this kind of legislation. 

“Seeing the same institutions that I hold close to my heart being turned into the ground for political showmanship is a new low,” Quaintance said. 

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“Their claims are rooted in the same talking points that fought to keep my ancestors enslaved. I find solace in understanding these claims have been defeated before and will certainly be defeated once again,” Quantance continued.

Quaintance says if passed, the bill will have detrimental effects considering the many diverse communities of Florida. 

“I think what we are truly facing is disgraceful planning from right-wing thought leaders from across the country. They are trying to revert our forward thinking 2023 into the treacherous times of 1963…we need a student body that is curious about the world, not a body that is guided away from racially uncomfortable topics,” he explained. 

Copy edited by Chanice McClover-Lee


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