What could be Florida Gov. DeSantis’ undoing on the national stage? HBCUs.

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By Nicholas Mitchell, assistant professor of curriculum studies at the University of Kansas

DeSantis is the darling of the anti-woke movement, but he would have to explain it outside of Florida in places like Georgia, Ohio and Texas — potential 2024 swing states with HBCUs. 

Students walk on the Florida A&M campus, in Tallahassee, in May 2020. (Joe Rondone / Democrat via USA Today Network)

Within higher education, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education reforms designed to combat what he considers “woke indoctrination” have rightfully generated a great deal of concern about the future of academic freedom in the state. This concern is shared nationally because of how entrenched the anti-critical race theory moral panic has become within social conservatism across the country.

But while the debate over “woke indoctrination” has been covered extensively, attention on the topic ignores a critical question: What happens if DeSantis — a 2024 Republican presidential favorite — accuses a historically Black college or university of woke indoctrination because he doesn’t like how it teaches Black history or ways of looking at society and the law? 

If that happened, the damage would be significant. Indeed, the elephant in the lecture hall looming over DeSantis’ higher education initiatives can be summed up in four letters: HBCU.

Nationally, there are 101 HBCUs; 52 are public institutions, and 49 are private, nonprofit institutions. There are four HBCUs in Florida, including Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (widely known as FAMU), in the state capital, Tallahassee. HBCUs have historically been and remain repositories of knowledge that was denied by the predominantly white colleges and universities that dominate academia. Their graduates include such crucial figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Pauli Murray, Thurgood Marshall and Vice President Kamala Harris.

As a curriculum theorist and a Black Southerner, I’ve been struck by how HBCUs have been missing from the national discussions about how race should be taught on college campuses. I suspect that part of the reason for this glaring omission is that when people not from the South think about “higher education,” they automatically think of predominantly white colleges and universities like the University of Florida. However, in the South, higher education is more diverse than many people outside the region give it credit for. 

Finish this opinion piece on NBC.

While some people may overlook HBCUs, others make bomb threats.

Find more thought-provoking articles in our breaking news archive.

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