The insidious power of keeping it vague

“Say what you mean and mean what you say,” unless you want to keep everyone guessing. Alas, vague is in vogue, the better to sow confusion about not-so-honorable intentions — and get your way in the end.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has mastered this dark art, most recently as he ordered thoughtful discussions of African American history to end before they had begun, with studies of other cultures somehow escaping his ire.

A pilot of an Advanced Placement course on the subject has run into the buzz saw of the state’s “Stop Woke Act.”

The Florida Department of Education’s letter to the College Board said the content of its AP African American studies course “is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value,” showing by its use of “inexplicably” that it had no earthly reason for a decision intended to close, not open, young minds.

Try teaching the history of the United States of America with “just the facts,” and you might end up with lessons on the enslavement of men, women and children, lynching, redlining and Jim Crow without judgment, without pointing out the evil, the inhumanity and the apathy of those who looked the other way while reaping the benefits of racist oppression.

In the name of not causing trauma in today’s students, Florida policymakers are erasing the trauma of the families and descendants of the Floridians lynched in Tallahassee, the state’s capital city, where the same lawmakers obviously close their eyes when passing markers acknowledging that chapter in American history.

Educators may want to fight back. But with jobs and livelihoods at stake, there are risks. ProPublica talked to a number of professors without tenure who are anxiously changing course names and weeding out terms such as “white privilege” to dodge cancellation and firing. But it’s difficult to avoid something that’s so hard to pin down, knowing all the while that disgruntled students who might be unhappy about a grade know exactly which “woke” cudgel will get immediate results.

So, for those instructors, it’s better to just stop. Just stop any mention of gender politics and the roots of racism, just stop connecting the dots between modern wealth and health gaps and how America’s institutions were constructed with discrimination the motivating factor.

Just stop answering questions from students of every race who are supposed to be curious, but apparently not too curious.

Don’t tell the governor that “woke” comes from a 1938 “stay woke” caution from blues singer Lead Belly, advice for Black Americans who wanted to avoid a fate similar to that of the falsely accused “Scottsboro Boys.” And by all means, don’t teach that in a Florida school. Because in 2023, “woke” means whatever DeSantis wants it to mean.

Unfortunately, Florida has set a template for other states, such as South Carolina, where Republican legislators have proposed a bill already being criticized by organizations such as the state’s American Civil Liberties Union for what it calls vague language that could discourage teachers from settling there.

A vague election law has already had its desired effect in, yes, Florida. After voters overwhelmingly approved opening up the franchise to former felons who had served their time, Republican legislators said, “Not so fast.”

Many of those hopeful voters, after being registered by confused election officials, themselves unsure of exactly what the law said, were swept up by DeSantis’ “election integrity” task force, arrested by law enforcement officers who seemed puzzled about the details of the law the terrified, targeted citizens were supposed to have broken.

Of course, those hauled out of their homes in handcuffs in well-publicized raids were mostly African American, with the white transgressors in The Villages given not much more than a slap on their presumably Republican wrists.

Charges may have been dropped in most cases, but do you think minority folks with a former brush with the law would risk another by voting?

Call it a pattern of intimidation by obfuscation.

Telling the truth, onstage and off, so history doesn’t repeat itself

When members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps last week to remember the events of Jan. 6, 2021, and honor those who defended them and democracy itself, there were glaring gaps in the heartfelt tableau.

That Friday morning, two years to the day after insurrectionists swarmed the U.S. Capitol with the intent of overturning the results of a fair election, many Republicans were too busy with a call sorting out the Kevin McCarthy speaker of the House drama to attend, though GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania was spotted among his Democratic colleagues.

It should have been a commemoration that transcended party and politics, a brief acknowledgment of the truth of what happened that terrifying day. Instead, memories of a mob breaking windows and pummeling police officers while calling for the heads of then-Vice President Mike Pence and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, have, in some quarters, gone poof!

That’s the danger of “whitewashing” history, a term I use with intention. It’s a practice neither shocking nor original, but it blocks any progress toward Americans understanding one another and this country we all share.

Thankfully, culture provides plenty of opportunities to fill in the blanks — and to reflect.

A play I’ve seen twice in recent weeks is a prime example. It illuminates a time many seldom think about, a history others would like to forget despite its imprint on injustice that remains in the present day.

“A Soldier’s Play,” first produced for the stage in 1981, set largely in the barracks of an all-Black Army unit in Louisiana in 1944, is a drama, a mystery and a history lesson — one that’s more relevant and necessary than ever at a time when any mention of this country’s past that doesn’t come tied in a shiny bow has become one more battle in America’s culture wars.

Why a lost election left Adam Frisch (and his son) optimistic

The announcement this week that Republican Lauren Boebert had won her race, and would be heading back to Washington to represent Colorado’s 3rd District in the House, hardly came as a surprise to her Democratic opponent. The surprise is the optimism of Adam Frisch — about Colorado, America and politics — after coming so close (a 546-vote margin close) to upending predictions and winning the seat.

“We’re all very proud of how well we ran and the way that we did it,” he said when I spoke with him on a Zoom call last week. “We took the high road throughout the whole journey, and that resonated with a lot of people.”

Frisch had already conceded before the recount, citing Colorado’s “very, very strong election laws” and “very high level of election integrity” and finding comfort in that. Based on her well-documented mistrust of government, I doubt Boebert would have accepted defeat quite so easily.

He is human, so “as great as the moral victory is or was,” Frisch said, “it certainly would have been better to have a victory victory.” But I believe Frisch when he says the 20,000-plus miles he traveled during his campaign were more than worthwhile. That’s because I had already met the other person on our call, his frequent companion in his trips throughout the district, the candidate’s 16-year-old son, Felix Frisch.

That any journalist covering politics, culture and race might occasionally succumb to cynicism will come as a revelation to exactly no one. One remedy for me turned out to be teaching a group of high school juniors and seniors and incoming college freshmen for two weeks, as I did this past summer, in a School of The New York Times Summer Academy course in political commentary. Felix was one of the students.

We explored Washington, D.C., including stops at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and, on an early excursion, the memorial to third president Thomas Jefferson, where we had a chance to consider the complicated legacy of one of America’s Founding Fathers.

On the walk back to the Metro on what must have been one of the hottest days of the summer, Felix told me he had been campaigning for and with his father, traveling the Colorado district to convince voters that Adam Frisch would represent their needs better than incumbent Lauren Boebert would.

I listened as he spoke excitedly of meeting voters in corners of the district few candidates had taken note of, and I thought to myself, “Too bad your dad doesn’t have a chance.”

But though it’s natural for any son to think his dad can do anything, Felix was on to something.

The Boebert I covered at the North Carolina Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Salt & Light Conference in September was ripe for a challenge, with her emphasis on grievance as she cast herself as victim in a kind of holy war.

Adam Frisch thought so too.

Georgia voters spoke. Is the GOP listening?

One of South Carolina’s senators must have an incredibly low opinion of Black Americans, their intelligence and judgment. The evidence? His sad, almost laughable closing argument as he barnstormed for Herschel Walker, who lost his runoff race challenging Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock and won’t be joining Lindsey Graham as a Republican colleague in Washington, D.C.

Graham did not talk about Walker’s proposals or plans for the people he would represent in the state of Georgia. He never mentioned Walker’s experience, which consisted of long-past football glory and running some businesses with a debated degree of success. In fact, Walker’s buddy barely let the candidate speak in TV appearances where Graham tried for “sidekick” but instead came off as “handler.”

No, Graham’s final arguments for the Donald Trump-endorsed Walker went something like this absurd statement he yelled more than stated on Fox News: “They’re trying to destroy Herschel to deter young men and women of color from being Republicans.”

Graham said, “If Herschel wins, he’s going to inspire people all over Georgia of color to become Republicans and, I say, all over the United States.”

No, senator. In fact, the reality turned out to be quite the opposite.

It’s about more than one dinner and a man named Trump

A now 19-year-old white man who targeted shoppers in a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket in May simply because they were Black, according to authorities, this week pleaded guilty to murder charges and one charge of domestic terrorism motivated by hate. In his not even 20 years on this earth, this gunman, who casts serious doubt on the onetime hope of optimists that young people would save us, was nurtured by racist lies and fueled by conspiracies of “replacement.”

The white supremacist (and I won’t say his name), who murdered 10 human beings and wounded three others, was on a mission, and he seemed proud to livestream his heinous actions. He can live his life, something he denied his victims, and if spared the death penalty on federal charges, he will spend the rest of it in prison.

His beliefs, however, are not going anywhere. In fact, they are having a moment.

White supremacy, antisemitism, misogyny and all kinds of hate are being lifted up by some of those who want to lead the country and ignored or dismissed by others who, at the very least, are afraid of alienating the haters — people who would destroy everything America is supposed to stand for. After all, they could be voters.

It’s not a shock that former president and current presidential candidate Donald Trump welcomed Kanye West, Nick Fuentes and a dude named Jamal to his Mar-a-Lago dinner table. Nor is it surprising that the few Republicans who have spoken out, at times tepidly, against Trump’s supper are being praised as heroes, proving the definition of that word has diminished over time.

In a dreary reminder that there is no bottom to GOP delusions, the usual suspects have continued to infantilize a 76-year-old man, blaming those around Trump rather than the man himself, as though what transpired at his Florida compound was a lapse in judgment, just a faux pas.

I know white guys are given the benefit of the doubt well past their sell-by date; they pretty much originated the term “youthful indiscretion” as a ready-made excuse. But to ask anyone to ignore Trump’s well-documented history, his both-sides wink at the deadly Charlottesville, Va., “Unite the Right” rally and his involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol (both of which were graced with Fuentes’ presence), should be a step too far, even for the former president’s No. 1 apologist, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Remember, once upon a time, Trump also claimed he didn’t know who former Klan grand wizard David Duke was.

Knowing all that, it’s not that hard to imagine the conversation at Trump’s dinner from hell.

Which party has a game plan for the future? We’re about to find out

Democrats get way too giddy about immediate gains and take their eyes off the ball, while Republicans excel at playing the long game. Overused sports metaphors aside, that has been the conventional wisdom because there’s a lot of truth in it.

Want proof? After Barack Obama’s historic 2008 presidential win, it was Republicans who ignored predictions of a “blue” future. They went to work. While Sen. Mitch McConnell did not ultimately succeed in his wish to make Obama a “one-term president” in 2012, he and his party delivered a 2010 midterm “shellacking” — to use Obama’s own word — that won control of the House and gained seats in the Senate.

In 2014, the GOP won that Senate majority McConnell craved, and the country still lives with the result — a solid conservative block on the Supreme Court, one that overturned Roe v. Wade and seems intent on rolling back voting rights and other signature issues claimed by today’s Democrats.

Few who watched McConnell’s block-and-delay strategy, one that shaped that court, would argue with his coaching skill and foresight. But after last week’s anemic midterm GOP showing, the wisdom of Republican guile and “Democrats in disarray” is looking a lot less conventional.

It’s Democrats who are being credited with thinking ahead.

So, was the blue team taking notes, or did Republicans get a little too cocky? Why did some of those best-laid plans backfire?

Who gets credit, and blame, after Election Day?

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp was rewarded Tuesday night with a win by voters, who approved of his policies and appreciated his stand against former President Donald Trump, who tried and failed to get Kemp to toss out ballots that contributed to Trump’s narrow 2020 defeat in the state.

But it always bothered me that Kemp and the similarly Trump-resistant secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, earned kudos and votes for simply doing their jobs, and that both, flush in the praise for standing up to Trump, went on to support more restrictive voting rules that were not needed in the first place, rules that disadvantaged voters like Jennifer Jones.

The Guardian recounted the arduous odyssey of Jones, a Ph.D. student at Morehouse School of Medicine in Georgia, who, like any good American citizen, showed up to cast her early vote in her Fulton County precinct for the midterm elections.

She hit a roadblock.

Despite dotting every “i” and crossing every “t,” she was told she could not cast a ballot for the candidates of her choice — Stacey Abrams for governor and incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock. Why? Someone she didn’t know and had never met had challenged her right to do the right thing.

The culprit was her state’s ironically named Election Integrity Act, supported by Kemp and Raffensperger, which allowed such a scenario and, in fact, invited it. Those who denied the results of the 2020 election of President Joe Biden, who were none too happy about the close election of two Democratic senators, Warnock and Jon Ossoff, enthusiastically used the law to cast doubt on the kinds of voters who made those results a reality.

Her mystery challenger might not have known her but probably knew a few things about her by following the clues and determining that Jones, a Black woman, was not quite “right” in some way.

It’s annoying, but not surprising, considering the history of Georgia and the country — white men of privilege taking two steps back for every step forward, when others doing the hard work don’t get much credit.

Remember, Georgia is the state where Black poll workers in that 2020 election were falsely accused of election mischief by Trump and friends, and hounded from their homes and patriotic duty. Mother and daughter Ruby Freeman and Wandrea “Shaye” Moss were still clearly shaken when they testified about their ordeal before the House select committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, 2021.

They were the true heroes of democracy in Georgia.

The results of Tuesday’s 2022 midterm elections are still uncertain. While the “red wave” predicted by Republicans, prognosticators and pollsters whose profession is becoming increasingly suspect did not emerge, control of the House and Senate is still up in the air.

One thing is certain, though. When results are this close, there will inevitably be rumblings about how Black voters could have done more to help Democrats, especially Black candidates who fell short. That was clear in preview stories that wondered if Democrats were doing enough, if Black voters expected too much, and whether or not Abrams was doing enough to appeal to Black men, in particular.

When will Republicans reject fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear?

Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine initially thought her GOP colleague Sen. Joe McCarthy might be onto something with his crusade to root out subversives in the State Department. After all, post-World War II, concern was high on issues of national security. But when she examined his questionable “evidence,” Smith instead worried that his bully-boy act would be the true subversion of American values.

Though her June 1950 “Declaration of Conscience,” delivered on the Senate floor and supported by six other Republican senators, never mentioned McCarthy by name, it was clear Smith meant the Wisconsin senator when she said: “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism.”

And though Smith certainly wanted Republicans to win, she said, “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.”

While Democratic President Harry S. Truman praised her words, retaliation was swift from McCarthy, who dismissed the effort from “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs” — proving inane name-calling did not originate with Donald Trump.

Smith was removed as a member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, replaced by an ambitious senator from California, Richard M. Nixon. But four years later, she got to cast a vote for McCarthy’s censure after the beginning of his end, the moment U.S. Army lawyer Joseph Welch asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

Cut to today, and the opportunity for members of today’s GOP to take a stand.

Celebrating, reflecting and looking to the future after National Hispanic Heritage Month

When America started officially honoring Hispanic heritage in 1968, it was a one-week celebration. Though the country now marks National Hispanic Heritage Month, acknowledging how generations of Hispanic Americans have influenced and contributed to our nation, it doesn’t have to end when that month is over. This episode of Equal Time reflects on the issues and challenges facing the community and the country now and into the future.

Equal Time host Mary C. Curtis speaks with Larry Gonzalez, an experienced participant in policy-making at the federal and state levels and a founder and principal of the communications firm The Raben Group, and Teresa Puente, an assistant professor who teaches journalism at California State University Long Beach and has spent her career reporting on immigration and Latino issues in the U.S., with extensive reporting from Mexico.

A depressing return to a well-worn election playbook — because it works

It’s no surprise that fear of the other — of what they want and what they might do to you and yours — is on the ballot in November.

Former President George H.W. Bush’s success in making Willie Horton the figurative running mate of his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, has nothing on race-baiting, the 2022 edition. In a close midterm election cycle, attack ads and accusations aimed at Black candidates, or any candidate that might be interested in restorative justice, are front and center, as Republicans running for office have returned to the playbook, one that unfortunately has worked time and again.

To many, Black people are viewed with suspicion straight out of the womb, and I’m only slightly exaggerating. Data backs me up. Just look at the greater percentage of Black boys and girls suspended or arrested for school infractions that earn white peers a lecture or visit to the principal’s office. Take note of the litany of unarmed Black people shot or choked by trained police officers who “feared for their lives,” with no benefit of the doubt to save them.

Even when the Black person under the microscope is educated and accomplished and has reached the highest of heights, the “othering” doesn’t go away. If the person can’t be tagged a criminal, he or she must be sympathetic to criminals. Guilt by historical association, you might say, because the tactic can be traced back hundreds of years, when dehumanizing Black people, connecting them to violence and crime, was the best way to justify murder, rape and lynching.

As Margaret A. Burnham, a law professor who founded the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, points out in her book “By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners,” throughout American history it was whites — bus drivers, store owners, ordinary people — who perpetrated random terror against Black people without consequence.

For the best example of predominantly white mob violence in the past few years, you need look no further than the videos and other evidence of windows and doors smashed, American institutions defiled and law enforcement beaten and attacked on Jan. 6, 2021. The goal was lawlessness, the overturning of a free and fair election.

I might add that it was left to mostly minority government employees to clean up the literal mess.

But stubborn facts won’t get in the way when there is political hay to be made.