In Defence of Being Awake

Photo by Dave Decker

By Malik Miah

We live in a surreal reality. Those of us who argue for truth-telling about history are attacked as practicing a non-existent “wokeism” – as described by Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and followers of former US president Donald Trump.

“Anti-Wokeism” is an attack on both racial justice and gender equality. It ignores the genocide of native peoples, violence against gays and lesbians (Florida passed a “Don’t Say Gay” law last year), and scores of state legislation against trans youth.

It accelerated with broadsides against women’s rights after the overturn of abortion legality by the Supreme Court in June 2022. It is a reminder of the sexist and anti-woman history of a country based on patriarchy and white male domination.

The country’s wealth creation, moreover, was always bloody – including the slavery that created early capitalist accumulation. DeSantis and others downplay that violent history by attacking those who teach the historical facts. He and others want to rewrite history, for example by banning the mention of the words “race” and “racism.”

The goal is to reproduce a country where not only Black people have difficulty to vote, but women are set back too. The state of Idaho is in the process of passing an anti-abortion law that criminalises “abortion trafficking,” making it illegal to take minors across state lines for an abortion while concealing it from their parents.

“Woke” to History

DeSantis says, “Wokeism is dead in Florida.” For him, only the story told by the European settlers should be allowed. Historical realities such as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 – where runaway slaves had to be brought back to their owners even from non-slave states – need to be whitewashed.

Of course, U.S. imperialist policies past and present are also largely off limits in school curricula – which includes not explaining why there are some 800 military bases around the world.

DeSantis has also adopted laws to ban books and to fire teachers and librarians who refuse to do what he says. Big Government’s full power is alive in Florida and the other Republican led states in the South and West.

But what really is this dangerous concept of wokeism? It is simply being aware of history based on facts?

African Americans have used that word, “wake,” for decades. Malcolm X said, “the greatest mistake of the movement has been trying to organise a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake the people up first, then you’ll get action.”

Wokeism is democratic, and radical. It should be proudly said and defended.

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Warning

In a March 4 article entitled, ‘Just the tip of the iceberg’, academic and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw warns against the right-wing battle over critical race theory:

“Are [schools] on the side of the neo-segregationist faction? Or are [they] going to stick with the commitments that we’ve all celebrated for the last 50, 60 years?”

The devastating truth is that conservatives and their corporate backers seek to roll back the social progress of the last 60 years. The campaign by DeSantis, Trump and their supporters is not really about what’s taught in public schools, but where Black people fit into this so-called democracy.

Historically, Black Africans were first enslaved with no representation in the Constitution, and after the end of slavery, and the defeat of Reconstruction, white supremacist states used violence to take back all the gains won in the Civil War (except bringing back slavery which was no longer economically feasible).

What was ratified as “separate but equal” by the Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) spread the segregationist legal system across the country, not just in the southern former slave-owning states.

History can repeat itself when citizens are not informed of that history. The past can become the present.

The Example of Mississippi

The case of Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, highlights how central the issue of voting rights is for white supremacists and their allies.

A case waiting to be heard by the Supreme Court, but not yet on its docket, concerns whether ex-felons can vote after serving their sentence. Mississippi is not the only state that denies that right but is unique because of the origins of the state’s Constitution.

Not every felony conviction in Mississippi involves people losing their voting rights, but 22 of them do. Some legal groups say that constitutional provisions in the state must be reviewed and struck down.

“Mississippi is keeping a provision of the 1890 constitution in place that everyone agrees was racially discriminatory when it was adopted,” according to the Deputy Director of Impact Litigation for the Mississippi Center for Justice Paloma Wu.

That the 1890 Constitution provision has never been struck down – even after the Court declared Jim Crow illegal in the late 1960s – shows how entrenched systemic and institutional racism is.

The fact that Florida, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi and other Republican states seek to advance racially motivated voting laws is not an accident. If you cannot vote, it is difficult to make legal changes.

Health care reforms are also opposed by these same reactionary forces. Ten states, all with Republican majority legislatures, refuse to expand Medicaid for the poor. This leads to more illness and deaths among Black and Brown people, as well as poor whites.

The attacks on basic rights that began against African Americans and extended to other oppressed national minorities, women, the disabled and LGBT-plus communities is not an accident. It is outrageous, but the far right does not care. Their plan is to eliminate these safety net programs.

Recovering History for the Future

The idea of ‘Make America Great Again’ harks back to the time of racial tyranny. Far-right forces attempt to end the teaching of fact-based history so that future generations have no ability to critique the present as a reflection of the past.

In Crenshaw’s view, this is all with the goal of transforming the “decades-long journey towards greater social justice” into what the right admonishes as “wokeness” – which is in fact the encouraging of racial justice and equity.

“Wokeness has become the oppression, not the centuries of enslavement and genocide, and imperialism that has shaped the lives of people of colour, in ways that continue into the present,” said Crenshaw.

Resistance to this reactionary ideology by the public must start in the streets. Slaves rose up repeatedly. The early civil rights movement was against the institutions and elected officials of the major parties.

That resistance led first to partial reforms, and finally the downfall of legal segregation across the country.

There can be no reliance on electoral politics. Black and liberal faces in high places are a buffer for the ruling class, not a base to lead mass legal as well as extra-parliamentary actions.

The new generation must lead the fight back by returning to the resistance roots of Black history, where basic rights didn’t exist. To fight back successfully will come in many forms, but going to the streets and being proud to be Awake is top of the agenda.

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