Professor Resists Florida Gov. DeSantis’ Censorship of Black History, Attack on Public Education

Interview with Marvin Dunn, professor emeritus of psychology at Florida International University, conducted by Scott Harris

As Florida’s extremist, right-wing Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to launch his 2024 campaign for president, he’s working hard to attract the support of white supremacists, Christian nationalists and people fearful of America’s changing values and demographics. The governor’s “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law blocks teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ issues, further stigmatizing that community. His “Stop WOKE Act” censors honest dialogue about systemic racism, gender and race discrimination in workplaces and classrooms. The law effectively discourages teachers from talking about Black history, including America’s Jim Crow era, slavery or lynching. Florida teachers could face third-degree felony charges for using books or literature in their classrooms not approved by the state.

More recently, DeSantis has prohibited Florida high schools from using the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies course, saying it violates a state prohibition on the teaching of critical race theory. In his attempt to attract support from anti-vaxxers, DeSantis is convening a grand jury to investigate “any and all wrongdoing” with respect to Covid-19 vaccines.

While DeSantis was re-elected in November by a 15 percent margin, teachers, students and civil rights leaders are organizing protests and school walkouts to oppose the governor’s attack on public education. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Marvin Dunn, professor emeritus ofpsychology at Florida International University, one of eight plaintiffs in a lawsuit against DeSantis’, Stop Woke Act. Here, Dunn, who has taught for over 40 years, discusses the lawsuit and his vow to defy the governor’s censorship of America’s history of segregation, discrimination and violence against communities of color.

MARVIN DUNN: It’s really a kind of low-handed approach to try to acquire the White House. This is not about black history. This is not about AP courses. This is about Ron DeSantis ramping up the extreme right-wing of the Republican party so that he can be the one who comes out with the nomination and then to carry this whole thing about “woke” and suppressing progressive education, progressive thought in our country into the mire.

SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Dunn, tell our listeners a bit about the lawsuit that you’re a part of with seven others.

MARVIN DUNN: There are seven of us in the university system in Florida who are saying we can’t teach under this law. They’re telling us that we can talk about slavery, for example, but we have to talk about it objectively. I’ve been teaching for 40 years. I was teaching before DeSantis was born. I don’t know how to talk about slavery objectively.

I don’t know how to talk about an enslaved woman having a child snatched from her breast, sold away without some sense that that was wrong. That was evil. But in Florida now, under DeSantis, for a teacher to say that that was wrong, that was evil — anything beyond the facts of that child being snatched away, they say, is indoctrination and that is where we are in Florida.

Anything that gives the teacher’s opinion about an act being evil, wrong is “indoctrination.” We can’t talk, for example, about the Holocaust. We can’t talk about children being burned in ovens in Eastern Europe without saying it was evil. But it was evil. We can’t say it without breaking the law and being at risk of being fired. We can’t talk about the dispossession of Native Americans in the lands by whites for the benefit of white settlement without being accused of indoctrinating students.

So this is coming, America. This is coming into your listeners. This is in Florida now. But DeSantis intends to be president and he intends to bring these same “anti-woke” policies to the American educational system.

SCOTT HARRIS: Stunning. You know, when you talk about slavery, the Holocaust, what apparently is being said here in this legislation is you have to present both sides, the pro-Holocaust and the anti-Holocaust or the pro-slavery and anti-slavery sides in your curricula. Is that what I’m hearing?

MARVIN DUNN: Exactly. Exactly. There is no pro-Holocaust side. There is no both sides on this issue. The problem I think that DeSantis has keyed into is that white America feels itself at threat from brown and black people becoming the dominant group in this country. And what we’re hearing and feeling and seeing now is a right-wing reaction to the inevitable, inevitable browning of America.

SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Dunn, tell us about the penalties involved in this legislation. What are teachers or professors in the state university system or state public schools jeopardizing when they defy these laws? I hear it’s a felony.

MARVIN DUNN: Excellent question. To have a book in a high school, a public school that has not been approved by a media specialist or librarian is a third-degree felony. You could lose your license. The state is very anxious to say, “Well, you won’t go to jail.” DeSantis says, “But you could lose your license.” You can could lose your way to make a living if you have a book in your classroom that has not been approved by media specialist.

Now, in Duval County, for example, Jacksonville, a very large county in our state, they now have 1.6 million books that must be approved by media specialist, librarians, before they can be accepted into schools and Duval County. Can you imagine how long it’s going to take to go through 1.6 million books to be sure that they can be admitted into the school system?

It is going to be — not going to be, it already is a tragic, tragic imposition upon public education about politics. This man is running for president. He’s using education as his bully pulpit. And frankly, I think he’s stepped into it because most Americans — white, black, conservative, progressive do not want the government telling professors like me and the other seven in our lawsuit — do not want the government telling us what we can and cannot teach.

That’s how Hitler did it. That’s how Stalin did it. That’s how Castro did it. Americans are opposed to this. And I think that this is going to cost the Republican party across the country in a very, very big way.

SCOTT HARRIS: Many people are looking at what Ron DeSantis is doing in Florida as an example of fascism. What are some of your thoughts about opposition? I know that Rev. Al Sharpton and a lot of other civil rights leaders have recently held a protest in Florida against these policies of Ron DeSantis. What’s going on in terms of organizing aggressive opposition to what DeSantis is doing in the schools?

MARVIN DUNN: I think that we’re going to see a tremendous awakening of liberal, progressive Americans — black, white of every ilk — coming forward to make sure that this DeSantis assault on freedom does not stand. People are coming down to the ramparts in Florida. We are not going to stand for this.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Marvin Dunn (28:01) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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