“What is happening in Florida?” asked a recent headline in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“Since the New Year, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies have ramped up efforts to eradicate ‘woke’ ideology from public colleges,” its reporters responded.
This answer is not wrong per se, but it is troublingly incomplete.
DeSantis’ assault on what his ministers have defined as “progressive activism” based on the false belief that “there are systemic injustices in American society” is itself a form of racialized violence that must conceal its tracks to succeed in bolstering white supremacy. Framed in these terms, DeSantis’ campaign to remake public higher education finds its most illuminating analogue in his proposals to expand the death penalty in the Sunshine State.
As two strands of a single rope, both campaigns encourage forms of ignorance that appeal to liberalism’s commitment to freedom and equality even as these are mocked in practice.
The Racial Contract
The late philosopher Charles Mills taught us that the social contract articulated in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution has always been underwritten by a racial contract committed to the subordination of Black Americans.
The provisions of the racial contract, wrote Mills, “can be read off legally codified institutions (e.g., slavery), formal government acts (e.g., Jim Crow laws), unofficial modes of official conduct (e.g., racial profiling by law enforcement officers), informal practices in the private sphere (e.g., patterns of residential segregation), theoretical discourses (e.g., biologistic accounts of racial inferiority), pernicious stereotypes (e.g., regarding the criminal propensities of young black men), and so on.”
The essential aim of the racial contract, Mills concluded, is to secure restrictions on the freedoms, rights, and opportunities of those whose exploitation is a necessary condition of the domination exercised by those categorized as white and entitled to unconditional membership within liberalism’s social contract.
The relationship between the social and racial contracts has changed over time as a result of political struggles that have highlighted the contradictions between liberalism’s egalitarian promise and the reality of nonwhite subordination.
Think of the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and, more recently, Black Lives Matter. These conflicts have halted some of the racial contract’s most brutal manifestations such as the institution of chattel slavery and the legal regime of Jim Crow. With their abolition, skin color no longer officially marks Black bodies as de jure targets of white violence.
Even so, the racial contract has demonstrated a stubborn capacity to reproduce itself under the cover of formally neutral and color-blind laws. Together such laws engender what Mills named the “epistemology of ignorance.”
This obliviousness is evident whenever anyone affirms that the universalist pretensions of this nation’s founding documents are now fully realized or more modestly asserts that contemporary departures from these truths are unhappy setbacks that are diminishing over time. Such declarations enable those who benefit from the racial contract to do so without conceding their complicity in reproducing what Mills labeled a class of “subpersons” ripe for repression.
Changes in the practice of capital punishment have enabled the ignorance that is essential to perpetuation of the racial contract today.
Following the Civil War, most states in the South adopted laws that expressly provided for the execution of Blacks convicted of certain non-lethal crimes such as arson and robbery but did not do the same for whites.
When these laws lapsed in the early decades of the twentieth century, the upshot was not fulfillment of liberalism’s ideal of equality under the law. Instead, so-called spectacle lynchings proliferated as mobs accomplished what the law now formally forbade. These acts of racial terrorism abated in response to pledges made by public officials to replace “vigilante justice” with state-sponsored executions. Yet the provisions of the racial contract soon wormed their way into less visible elements of capital punishment.
As a recent study issued by the Death Penalty Information Center shows, anti-Black racism remains very much alive — although often inconspicuous — within the machinery of state-sponsored death.
This can be seen in the use of barely disguised racist peremptory challenges to secure juries predisposed to vote for capital sentences. It can be seen in the unchallenged deployment of pernicious stereotypes about Black defendants during trials. It can be seen in the race-specific construction of aggravating and mitigating circumstances after first-degree homicide convictions are secured. Perhaps most tellingly, it can be seen in the disproportionate prosecution of death-eligible offenses when victims are white.
A brand of rough justice that once left its handiwork available for all to see is thereby incrementally incorporated within the mundane operations of the law’s rationalized violence. Dispersion of this violence throughout the legal system, which accomplishes its work far less dramatically than does a noose or even a needle, is essential to propagate the epistemology of racialized ignorance.
DeSantis’ proposals to reinvigorate capital punishment in Florida should be read against this backdrop.
Although the state already warehouses the nation’s second largest number of death row inmates, the governor has pledged to expand the range of crimes for which capital sentences may be considered.
At his urging, one bill recently introduced into the Florida House and Senate would also allow the death penalty to be imposed if only 8 of 12 jurors agree, thereby establishing the lowest threshold in the United States. Yet another would permit a judge to override a jury’s recommendation of life in prison without parole and sentence the convicted to death instead.
Given the relationship between race and capital punishment, if adopted, these measures will amplify the racial contract even as they facilitate white amnesia about the state’s replication of a pact it cannot openly affirm.
When Education Breeds Ignorance
During the half century following the withdrawal of Federal troops from the South in 1877, lynching emerged as a toxic means to regenerate the racial contract once white supremacy could no longer be secured through chattel slavery.
These extralegal killings were part and parcel of a comprehensive set of practices including race-specific codes of etiquette, systems of economic marginalization, especially debt peonage, and diverse methods of political disenfranchisement including the poll tax. Together, these practices recreated the category of “subpersons” absent the legally codified construction of Blacks as private property.
A key element of this package was restricted access to education — exactly what Ron DeSantis is now perpetuating. He is doing so not by formally excluding Black students from the right to attend schools but by ensuring that the obdurate legacy of slavery is eradicated from what is taught there.
The reality of slavery and Jim Crow may still be covered in history courses but that past must be denied any role in constituting the present. Should that past appear present in the continued killing of young Black men by police officers, those acts must be dismissed as the misdeeds of aberrant apples who violate the terms of the social contract on which this nation was founded and to which it remains steadfastly committed.
Three examples illustrate this ideological ploy. First, cultivation of the racial contract’s epistemology of ignorance can be seen in Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, which effectively bans instruction about the structural underpinnings of the racial polity. Second, New College’s diversity, equity, and inclusion office has now been abolished, which effectively denies the need for programs that address the abiding residues of slavery. Third, under pressure from state officials, the Advanced Placement course in African American Studies has excised the term “systemic” as a modifier for “marginalization,” “discrimination,” “inequality,” and “disempowerment,” which effectively renders all racism a matter of personal prejudice.
Together, these measures erase the distinctive forms of violence that sustain the racial polity and, similar to DeSantis’ vow to accelerate the death penalty, actively reproduce the power of white supremacy.
White benightedness is enabled not merely by what is denied or prohibited but also by what DeSantis affirms.
The higher education bill filed last month at his behest provides this:
“General education core courses may not suppress or distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, such as Critical Race Theory, or defines American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”
DeSantis’ promotion of ignorance proves especially pernicious because it appropriates the universalist pretensions of liberalism’s social contract to advance its racist counterpart.
The official title of Stop WOKE is the Individual Freedom Act. Its announced purpose is to safeguard persons from the evil of oppression and, still more duplicitously, illegal acts of discrimination.
Liberalism’s foundational categories are thereby turned against themselves via a policing of history that reinforces racial subordination beneath a banner that reads “liberty.”
What Makes DeSantis New
American higher education’s engagement in reproduction of the racial contract is not new and hardly an invention of Ron DeSantis.
Colleges were first created in the British colonies chiefly as vehicles for the education of political, economic, and ministerial elites — and that almost always entailed the exploitation of Black and Indigenous populations.
As Craig Wilder demonstrates in “Ebony & Ivy,” this history cannot be represented as a series of unfortunate missteps taken by a few biased individuals. Rather, the theft of land and the enslavement of persons were essential preconditions of higher education’s establishment, its acquisition of property, and, in some cases, the accumulation of enormous endowments.
To maintain that the academy’s work in sustaining white supremacy effectively ended with the Civil War is to forget the racial contract’s reappearance, for example, in the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, which transferred ownership of expropriated lands to land grant universities. It also overlooks the 1944 G.I. Bill, which according to a National Urban League study, was administered “as though the legislation were earmarked ‘For White Veterans Only.’”
Cut from the same cloth, DeSantis’ plan for the reconstruction of Florida’s public universities and colleges and his call to jack up the death penalty represent overlapping manifestations of America’s ongoing negotiation of the tensions between the social contract’s normative aspirations and the harsh imperatives of its racist analogue.
If DeSantis can lay some claim to originality, that turns on how he is manipulating the fears and resentments of a white population deeply threatened by the prospect of its imminent replacement by dark bodies.
Since the Nixon Administration, we have seen this backlash in racist appeals to get tough on crime. DeSantis’ capital punishment agenda is but the latest manifestation of this reactionary move. Since the Reagan Administration, we have witnessed efforts to enlist public higher education in the service of an anti-Black agenda. DeSantis’ animus toward affirmative action is but the most recent echo of this racist reflex.
What renders DeSantis new is his insidious fabrication of the epistemology of ignorance under the guise of advancing liberalism’s canonical values of freedom and equality. To force higher education to participate in this white supremacist sham is to render it mere indoctrination.
Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn is the Baker Ferguson Professor of Politics and Leadership Emeritus at Whitman College. He is the author of multiple articles on academic governance as well as “The Autocratic Academy: Reenvisioning Rule within America’s Universities” (Duke University Press, 2023).
Header image by Gage Skidmore on WikiMedia Commons.