White supremacy claimed three lives. But Florida would rather fight acronyms | Opinion

Bob Self/Florida Times-Union / USA TODAY NETWORK

Racism, hatred and white supremacy aren’t facts of the past, and speaking about these persistent evils in American society isn’t meant to instill guilt or impose a political agenda.

What happened over the weekend in Jacksonville isn’t a talking point. It’s senseless, yet increasingly common, violence that claimed the lives of three Black Floridians, targeted because of their race, according to law enforcement.

The Dollar General shooting shouldn’t be treated as an outlier, an act carried out by a mad man. If mental illness were a factor, as it seems to have been, it’s not the full story. The Justice Department is investigating the shooting as a hate crime. The racist writings by the suspected gunman and the swastikas drawn on his AR-15-style rifle should be treated with the same urgency with which Florida lawmakers treated mental health after the 2018 Parkland school massacre.

Were the mass shooting to serve as a lesson for Florida policy makers, they would quickly launch task forces to address the white supremacy that’s latent in Florida. This is the state where neo-Nazis boldly marched outside Disney World in June with flags bearing swastikas. Just as disturbing, some flags bore Gov. Ron DeSantis’ image. Last year, Florida hosted the America First Political Action Conference, a white supremacist event that took place in Orlando. And the state is home to many Proud Boys, a group that harbors white supremacists within its ranks.

On the rise

In 2022, Florida saw a 50% increase in antisemitic incidents and hate crimes, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League.

Race-motivated crimes aren’t mere historical entries, like Jacksonville’s “Ax Handle Saturday” in 1960, when more than 200 Ku Klux Klan members, armed with wooden ax handles, attacked civil-rights protesters. Florida leaders boast that the state requires the teaching of Black history — “the good, the bad and the ugly,” as Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. says. But it’s easy to talk about racism as part of the past while dismissing it in the present.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers have spent the past two years demonizing an AP Black studies course, scaring parents about critical race theory and painting diversity, equity and inclusion — DEI — as anti-American. They passed laws like the “Stop WOKE Act,” which limited how K-12 teachers, college professors and corporate diversity trainers can teach about race and racism.

CRT, DEI and “woke” don’t kill people. White supremacy does, as it did in mass murders in Jacksonville, Buffalo, Charleston, El Paso and Pittsburgh.

A ‘scumbag’

Teaching students about systemic racism — how laws, systems and institutions disadvantage African Americans — doesn’t kill people.

Systemic racism does. As it does, for instance, Black women, who are more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications.

DeSantis said the right things in the wake of the shooting. He called the suspected gunman a “major league scumbag” and denounced his racist motives. He struck a bipartisan tone by thanking Jacksonville’s newly elected Democratic Mayor Donna Deegan. He vowed to direct state funds to secure Edward Waters University, the historically Black college the alleged shooter tried to access before his shooting spree.

“We are not going to let people be targeted based on their race. We are going to stand up and we are going to do what we need to do to make sure that evil does not triumph in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said at a vigil on Sunday.

That is the appropriate response we expect, and demand, from Florida’s governor. As Jacksonville Council member Ju’Coby Pittman said, as DeSantis was booed by vigil attendees, “If the governor wanted to come here and he’s bringing gifts to my community, y’all know I’m taking the gifts, because we’ve been through enough already.”

In the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, any community will take the help it can get. But true leadership is displayed in the long run, when reporters and cameras have moved on. There’s little hope that Jacksonville will signal a shift in Florida’s race politics, but if the deaths of three people won’t do it, then nothing else will.

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