Writing during the apartheid regime of Jim Crow, famed historian and founder of Black History Month Carter G. Woodson observed that “the philosophy and ethics resulting from our educational system have justified slavery, peonage, segregation, and lynching.” That system is exactly what Gov. Ron DeSantis has tried to resurrect in signing SB 266 into law, a whitewashing tactic that has historically coincided with white supremacist violence in the U.S.
The law builds on a wave of book, content, and course bans passed by Republican legislators, schools boards, and governors in 36 states over the last year. SB 266 not only forbids scholars of race, class, gender, and inequality from teaching in their areas of expertise, but also requires that general education courses indoctrinate students in the “Western canon,” drawing on a right-wing “American Birthright” curriculum organized in part by DeSantis ally Chris Rufo.
The information that college instructors like me are now forbidden by law from sharing with their adult students under SB 266 leaves them less able to understand the world around them and to critically engage Republican policy priorities like voter suppression or attacks on trans persons that promote inequality. It leaves students less informed and more vulnerable—that appears to be the whole point.
This banned material is information that students want to know because it helps them make sense of the world as it actually exists.
While myths and fables about the greatness of “the founders,” enslavers, and segregationists might make some Americans feel better about their country, they misrepresent the problems we have as a society. Chronic, intergenerational poverty in resource-deprived neighborhoods might seem like an individual failure, for example, until you learn about the sprawling system of segregated opportunities from redlining and sundown towns, to the ongoing efforts to keep schools segregated and underfunded. In fact, those racist systems not only produced wealth inequality but also created a whole host of problems that we face from chronic flooding to never-ending traffic jams.
Forbidding scholars from teaching about these systems and their effects won’t help students learn about the actually existing problems they face, much less solve them.
My experience with students of all backgrounds has been overwhelmingly positive in these classroom settings. Students often express rage or frustration at having been taught whitewashed and racist versions of our shared past, both in person and anonymously, while others share feelings of vindication.
I can’t recall a single student sharing feelings of personal guilt or shame—although that would be totally fine—after having learned about the systems of oppression and exploitation that shaped our world. What they express instead is an excitement at having learned something that helps them understand their world and, crucially, that allows them to help transform it. SB266 is designed to prevent that exact outcome.
It might seem like these attacks on education will be limited to states with far-right politics, but the history of these movements suggests otherwise.
As white supremacists expanded slavery during the white nationalist presidency of Andrew Jackson, for example, they used a similar series of tactics to suppress dissent from the famed “gag rule” in Congress, banning the discussion of abolition, to the seizure and destruction of U.S. mail containing abolitionist literature. Racist vigilantes even assassinated abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy and destroyed his press, a tactic white conservatives would use repeatedly to silence critics. Enslaver attempts to eliminate dissent, especially from enslaved people like Nat Turner, led to the expansion of an existing system of violence by singling out critics of slavery as enemies of the state, beyond the protection of the law.
White supremacists operated this enhanced system of suppression and violence, ratcheting it up through the slow civil war of Bleeding Kansas, until it reached a boiling point in the secession crisis and mass death of the Civil War.
DeSantis’ attacks on research and instruction critical of structural white supremacy fit a long history of white nationalist attacks on schools and research, particularly those defending Black rights and equality. In the aftermath of emancipation, for example, white supremacists destroyed more than 600 Black schools—murdering teachers and burning books and schoolhouses—as part of a larger effort to roll back Black citizenship and voting rights.
We saw a similar movement during Jim Crow when the United Daughters of the Confederacy—the Moms for Liberty of yesteryear—pressured states to rewrite their textbooks to celebrate slavery and white supremacy. That whitewashing movement coincided with and justified the lynching and massacres that defined the Jim Crow era, often organized around destroying Black presses.
Attacks on education and access to information like Florida’s SB 266 have never been about “protecting” students or promoting education. They are about wielding power and eliminating dissent. That is what makes this tactic so dangerous and, historically, a precursor to white supremacist violence.
William Horne is an Arthur J. Ennis Postdoctoral Scholar at Villanova University who writes about the relationship of race to labor, freedom, and capitalism during Reconstruction and Jim Crow.