The coded language against “wokeness” is doing what it has always done: trying to protect the fragile body of hate.
Ron DeSantis, governor and presidential candidate, says defiantly, “Florida is where woke comes to die.” He even picked a fight with Mickey Mouse to demonstrate his resolve. As Farmer’s Insurance Company and other insurance companies announce their exit from Florida, the Republican Party’s explanation is not failed governmental policies, but “wokeness.” Meanwhile, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville is holding up military promotions and appointments because of his war with “wokeness.”
Tuberville and DeSantis are two mouthpieces representing a chorus of other crusaders in the war against “wokeness,” which is code for Blackness and the kind of change that expands inclusion and diversity in the United States. It represents change from the way things used to be and demands that the line be held from the change wrought through expanding diversity and the awakening of peoples who have been marginalized. He, and others like him, want to be seen as standing against encroachments on the mythical white way of life.
The cultural war and its battlecry against “wokeness” exists to protect white constructed hierarchies and turn back the clock. It seeks to spurn all advances made through the struggles for human and civil rights. The U.S. Supreme Court turned back the clock on Roe v. Wade, dismantled affirmative action in higher education, and ruled that a website designer could not be compelled to make custom websites for same-sex weddings. It also found that Colorado’s public-accommodations law — which included protections for sexual orientation — was unconstitutional and reasoned that it compelled a person to create speech that violates their faith.
These recent rulings demonstrate that there is indeed a war afoot, but the culture at stake is white supremacist and nationalist. You can hear the chorus singing, “Give me that old-time religion,” as lines are drawn in the sand between yesterday and tomorrow — and the marching mobs sing, “Onward Christian Soldier.” The war being waged is between what could be and the way things used to be. The battle lines are often dressed in religious garb and can be secular, religious, Christian or Zionist.
I am reminded in this moment of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which codified “separate but equal.” In 1892, Homer Plessy refused to sit in a car reserved for Blacks. The battleground, and the so-called culture wars existed then to turn back the clock on the newfound freedoms of Black people. The culture wars have always been led by white supremacist culture in the United States, and they stem from the radical changes thrust upon it by the abolition of slavery.
The coded language against “wokeness” is designed to do what it has always done: trying to turn back the clock and protect the fragile body of hate that feels afflicted and wounded by change and the expansive inclusion of people who have been excluded. The battles rage on.
In the Dred Scott decision, which occurred before the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled on the question of whether Dred Scott should still be in bondage, due to the fact that his enslaver temporarily moved him from a “slave state” (Missouri) to a “free state” (Illinois and Wisconsin). With slavery outlawed in “free states,” Scott petitioned the court, only to see it rule, in March 1857, that Black people were “…not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges…” The court hoped the decision would conclude the cultural wars around slavery, with Chief Justice Taney writing, “…They had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”
Taney drew a line in the sand. He was trying to keep the winds of change at bay, and his statement is not far removed from the comments made by Tuberville at a 2022 Trump rally. Referring to Democrats and Black people, the senator said, “They’re pro-crime. They want crime. They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparation because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”
This conjures the reasons leading to the Civil War, where the perception was that the North was trying to take something from the South — namely slavery — with the outcome being the dismantling of the white southern way of life. “They want to control what you have.”
Recently, Tuberville stumbled over whether white nationalism is racism. He could not bring himself to condemn white nationalism. When it was pointed out that white nationalism was white supremacy, he dismissed the definition as the interviewer’s opinion.
The opposition to “wokeness” — and particularly the reluctance to condemn white supremacy — illustrates that the so-called cultural wars are not really that at all. Calling these thinly veiled racist and misogynist expressions cultural wars is an avoidance of the historical weight of the debate. Yes, it is about culture, and it is a war. The culture is white supremacy — which is often presented with religious overtones — and the war is not new. It reaches back in a continuous bloodstream from the battlefields of the Civil War.
People and pundits dismiss Tuberville’s refusal to denounce white nationalism as stupidity. But doing so shows a misunderstanding of how white supremacy permeates American culture. Tuberville, like many Americans, thinks that white nationalism is the natural state of things, and to question that order is to question existence itself.
White nationalism is not only an Alabama problem, it’s a problem that is malignant in American culture. The United States is steeped in white nationalism. The country accepts it, lives it, and breathes it. However, it is not a conscious breathtaking. It is all around us, and it is what bombards us in ways most do not notice. We live and exude a culture of white nationalism where its heated rhetoric spilled out onto the battlefields 162 years ago, and the carnage of that ideological war infects us today.