Gov. Ron DeSantis has led the Republican charge against co-called “wokeism,” saying that his state, Florida, “is where woke goes to die.”
If so, DeSantis made sure it would have access to health care.
In June 2021, DeSantis signed legislation beefing up the “Office of Minority Health and Equity Health,” essentially doubling its budget. Among other initiatives, the bill required the office to ramp up efforts that “develop and promote the statewide implementation of policies, programs, and practices that increase health equity in this state.”
The legislation allotted a new $4.4 million to the “Closing the Gap” program, for “reducing racial and ethnic health disparities,” including for maternal health. Through the bill, DeSantis—who has made a show of slashing so-called “woke” government programs—also increased “resources for providers who wish to improve cultural competency” and designated local liaisons to communicate with state officials.
While most objective assessments of the office would call it an important investment, the expanded mission included language that would make anti-woke crusaders blush. For instance, the bill seeks to improve quality and access to health care for “individuals with limited proficiency in the English language.” It also requires the state to host and update public data on “health disparities” among “racial and ethnic minority populations,” disparities that in the view of many contemporary Republicans are either overblown or don’t exist at all.
DeSantis, widely considered the biggest Republican threat to former President Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign, has boosted his national profile in large part by targeting government support for so-called “woke” policies—initiatives that in general advocate for a more inclusive cultural understanding of and support for historically marginalized communities.
While those reactionary efforts have received enthusiastic backing from the state’s conservative legislature, two years ago that legislature threw more muscle behind inclusive health outreach. The 2021 bill—which was spearheaded by some of Florida’s top progressives, including state Reps. Anna Eskimani and Kamia Brown—enjoyed unanimous bipartisan support in the legislature before DeSantis put his signature on it.
To be clear, while the OMH boost may have been impactful for the agency, it represents only a sliver of the state’s financial commitments. In February, DeSantis proposed a $115 billion budget, which his office coined the “Framework for Freedom.” Among other outlays, the budget provides $98 million to expand the Florida State Guard, a civilian volunteer group.
By comparison, the proposal broadly allocates about $21.7 million for “minority health initiatives.” It would also zero out the already meager funding for “strengthening the state’s minority health and health equity infrastructure.”
Still, the OMH has perhaps been overlooked amid DeSantis’ anti-woke war. It isn’t a new agency. The state created the office in 2004 and added “Health Equity” to its name in 2016—a history which suggests that in this area, Florida has given some lip service to wokeism for years. The Closing the Gap grantees for 2021 include Prideline Youth Services, which has advocated on behalf of South Florida LGBTQ teens for more than a decade.
But while OMH has been working comparatively quietly to amplify the state’s minority health care outreach, DeSantis has passed a swath of “anti-woke” legislation, including education policies involving institutionalized racism. The campaign has included the so-called “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” the “Parental Rights In Education Act,” and 2022’s “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” a sweeping bill that purported to target K-12 curricula engaging in critical race theory—a claim education experts have said has no grounding in reality. (A federal judge also blocked that law in November, calling it “positively dystopian.”)
The official OMH website, however, recognizes institutionalized racism. It features a statement declaring that “systemic barriers have produced health, financial, educational and housing disparities.” These disparities, the site says, are “complex and impact how well an individual can achieve the best life possible.”
“The complexities of the problem call us all to do more and achieve more together,” the statement concludes—an optimistic ambition, given the accelerating partisanship under DeSantis’ watch.
“Systemic racism has come to the forefront, and with it the deep-rooted issues surrounding social justice as it relates to health, especially for the Black community,” Dr. Owen Quinonez wrote in the op-ed, which focused on minimizing racial disparities among tobacco users.
Quinonez didn’t reply to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. DeSantis’ office also didn’t respond to a request for comment.
One of the 2021 law’s architects—Kyaien Conner, a researcher at the University of Southern Florida—also addressed “structural racism” in a statement applauding the bill.
“There will be significant pressure to address the underlying conditions (e.g. lack of available health services, structural racism in delivery of health care or other social services),” Conner said, adding that those efforts must extend beyond the pandemic.
Florida’s COVID response, which health experts have blasted as “irresponsible and reckless,” could actually pose a political threat from the right wing, many of whom mistrust DeSantis as an early advocate of vaccines. More recently, DeSantis has embraced COVID as an ideological football in an effort to burnish his bona fides with the conservative base. The OMH, however, has led statewide efforts to provide vulnerable minority populations with access to information and quality health care during the COVID crisis.
The anti-wokeness crusade has not been lost on the people who, for two years, pushed DeSantis to expand minority outreach. Last month, Kyaien Conner, the USF researcher who helped design the 2021 bill, punched back at DeSantis’ latest attempts to hamstring diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in higher ed.
“DEI is a concept that has been misconstrued and used again as a scapegoat in a larger political fight,” Conner said, adding that “we haven’t even begun to fully realize the potential implications.”
But as DeSantis potentially prepares himself for a 2024 presidential bid, any office with even the slightest hint of “wokeness” is a prospective political liability.
Former President Donald Trump has also made crusades against wokeness a key pillar of his campaign, and both men—ridiculous or not—are likely to trade barbs over whose record is more “woke.”
The Cook Political Report recently explored how Republicans going after “wokeness” is actually a better driver of political engagement for Republicans than anti-Joe Biden rhetoric. And “wokeness” seems to be a prime differentiator for Republicans in primaries. As the Cook Political Report noted in its analysis, the ad tracking firm AdImpact identified 149 ads run by GOP candidates that used the term “woke” in its commercial. Three-quarters of those ads were run in the Republican primary.