I have yet to see in the media the full, true story of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ war on Florida’s public honors college, New College of Florida. The narrative has been that this is a small college that DeSantis is trying to take over for his culture war and leave it at that. It is true that DeSantis is effectively destroying Florida’s universities with the help of his supporters’ openly hostile resentment of higher education. And yes, he’s making Florida toxic to not just out-of-state students, but Florida’s own students and professors who are deciding it’s best to leave the state and go somewhere less oppressive. Not to mention the medical students who are canceling their residencies in Florida due to abortion laws. But there’s so much more than that.
To begin with, no outlet has even described the unique way New College operates. It’s modeled after the New College of Oxford University in England. There are no grades: all courses are pass/fail. The student is responsible for his or her entire course planning, and there are no required courses. There’s few organized sports, and no fraternities or sororities. This school is only for the most highly motivated students who have the maturity and intellect to chart their own path and create their own approved course structure. New College has always scored at the top of national rankings, such as The Princeton Review and Forbes; and has ranked fifth in U.S. News & World Report’s annual review of public schools for higher learning. It is a very small school, with under 1,000 students, but has produced more Fulbright scholars than either Harvard or Yale.
Yet DeSantis is determined to spend millions transforming this successful Florida institution into a sham school catering to bigoted yokels. He appointed unqualified extremists to the board who immediately ousted the current president. Already, they are embroiled in scandal as the new president, Richard Corcoran, former state House speaker and friend of DeSantis, is getting paid a salary of almost $700,000. His predecessor made $276,000. Corcoran is now the highest paid college president in Florida with the exception of the University of Central Florida, which is 70 times its size. Yet the real scandal is why DeSantis specifically targeted this institution. There’s a reason, and if you don’t know what happened on this campus 10 years ago, you’d never guess.
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The media narrative for DeSantis’ destruction of New College is that it’s a small college with little clout famous for its left-leaning population and high percentage of LGBTQ+ students. That’s true, and yes, bullies like to pick on small things. After all, DeSantis is the definition of a bully. He loves to talk tough, but always shrinks like a violet when someone like Trump attacks him. He therefore attacks people who don’t always have the political power or resources to defend themselves, which includes high school students, marginalized communities, and even the Special Olympics. Yet there are plenty of small, underfunded schools in Florida. To understand DeSantis’ promise to completely erase the “woke” of New College, you need to understand how it all ties into the rise of the resurgent white nationalist movement in Florida.
If you know anything about what is going on in this state, you know that white supremacists and literal Nazis are enjoying a resurgence here in Florida because of DeSantis. They feel emboldened enough to hold Nazi protests and hate rallies in front of tourist attractions, major shopping hubs, and in the center of downtown areas. In my own hometown, literal arm-banded Nazis held a rally in front of our largest shopping district, which is called Waterford Lakes. (My wife, who is Black, won’t go walking there alone anymore.)
Tampa (outside the Turning Point conference):
DeSantis is part of the new crop of GOP leaders, like Doug Mastriano and Tommy Tuberville, who openly stand by white nationalism. DeSantis even told them they were saviors of the Republican Party.
[DeSantis] has reached out to QAnon supporters and insurrectionists and suggested January 6 was a setup by the FBI. He has denounced Liz Cheney for participating in the January 6 hearings but refused to denounce a gang of Nazis who showed up in Orlando and menaced local Jews. This is a clear signal of whom DeSantis sees as inside the coalition (white supremacists) and who is out (pro-democracy Republicans like Cheney).
At these rallies, the Nazis wave the swastika flags alongside DeSantis posters and “DeSantis Country” flags. Far from condemning them, the governor made excuses for them. He blamed Democrats for their presence, and his spokesperson even suggested they aren’t really Nazis. Yet DeSantis has steadfastly refused to denounce the neo-Nazi rallies held in his honor, even when he is repeatedly asked to do so by reporters and Jewish leaders.
Anytime he is asked to condemn them, he lashes out at the person asking him to do so and redirects his ire to either the media or a Democrat. The truth of the matter is that these creeps are a vital part of Trump’s base. In fact, they are Trump’s most passionate supporters. DeSantis knew this, and knew that if he wanted to progress in his political quest to seize power, he had to make inroads with the core constituency of Trump’s base. White supremacists are solely in the Trump column, but he had a plan to win them over. Far from attacking them and what they stand for, he instead caters to them.
So what does this have to do with New College? Well, as someone who has covered Florida politics for decades, I’ve seen first-hand the slow and systematic infiltration of white supremacist extremists into the state GOP. You can guess what the Republican Party here is going to do if you keep your ear to the ground on what is first happening with these hate groups. Not long ago, foreign undocumented immigrants were the scapegoats for everything. The disgusting, racist attacks that were confined with these groups get promoted by right-wing media, and are now GOP establishment dogma.
White supremacist groups in Florida aren’t just growing, but becoming more visible. Their websites, which I won’t link to, moved from posts about MS-13 and immigrants to suddenly discussing conspiracies about transgender people and grooming. This was before Florida became known for book bans and attacks on teachers as grooming pedophiles.
DeSantis took these conspiracy theories and instantly made ultra-repressive laws around them, and the hate groups loved him for this. Yet DeSantis was also, I’m certain, very well aware of the neo-Nazis’ hatred for New College. In my opinion, our local press has done a disservice for not reporting on this for whatever reason. So I’ll tell the tale.
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For a school that has produced some notable alumni, one of the ones they tend not to feature is a young man by the name of Derek Black. He is the godson of David Duke and the son of Don Black, the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Don Black founded the first neo-Nazi online forum and world’s most prominent white nationalist website, Stormfront. In fact, Dylan Roof, the 21-year-old who murdered nine Black victims while they were praying in a South Carolina church, was radicalized by the website.
Derek grew up completely immersed in the white supremacist movement and was the heir apparent to the empire his dad built. In fact, “the heir” was his nickname. Derek was known for making fiery speeches alongside his dad.
He hosted a hateful radio show on his father’s network, and even created a companion website called “Kid’s Stormfront.” At 19, he ran to be a GOP committee chair and won, although to be fair, he wasn’t allowed to be seated. (Open fascism used to be more frowned upon.)
Derek would speak at white supremacist conferences. His main belief was that Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, and the LGBTQ+ community would not only outnumber Christian whites, but would then destroy “white culture” and thus the nation. You may not know Derek, but I’m willing to bet you’ve heard the term “white genocide.” Derek has been credited with popularizing that term, and it’s a concept that even Trump retweeted during his first campaign.
Derek was apparently a very good student and wanted to go to college to study medieval history. (This historical period is popular among white nationalists because they believe it proves European superiority.) He convinced his parents to let him go to New College in Florida.
It was an odd choice for a school that prides itself on multicultural values and being friendly toward the LGBTQ+ community. Not only was the college affordable, his dad wanted his son to be college-educated so he could give the neo-Nazi movement some academic credentials. He also stated on his radio program that Derek was persuasive enough to win over converts at his new school.
Fearing he would be kicked out of New College if they knew about his hateful beliefs, Derek tried to hide his family lineage from the other students. Unfortunately for Derek, it wasn’t long before the student body found out who he was because someone Googled his name. So many people protested his presence at the school that the campus had to be shut down for a day. Many demanded he be expelled, which New College did not oblige. Administrative leaders made the decision to resist student calls to expel him.
However, there was a progressive Jewish organization on campus that took an interest in Derek. In a remarkable act of kindness, they invited Derek each week to their homes for dinner to share in Shabbat services. (Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath, a weekly holiday of spiritual enrichment and offers a respite from the hectic pace of the rest of the week.) Isolated, Derek eventually took them up on the offer.
Over time, the students were able to engage him on his beliefs. More importantly, just by being friendly toward him they showed that the stereotypes he had been groomed to believe weren’t true. Derek had written and said terrible things about Jews, that they were the puppet masters of society and used a scheme of multiculturalism to keep down the “white race.” One student named Allison Gornick, who originally called for his expulsion and refused to be in the same room with him, decided to try to talk with him instead.
They had similar interests, which they bonded over, and eventually she confronted him about his ideology. She went through point by point to demonstrate how his beliefs were built upon hate and misinformation. She would send academic studies to refute his many beliefs that minorities were inferior due to everything from IQ scores to crime.
Through the fights, they forged a strong friendship, and eventually, a romance. Gornick is Jewish.
In 2013, Derek sent a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center that rocked the white supremacist movement to the core, and outraged the hate communities in Florida. The key phrase was this: “I do not believe advocacy against ‘oppression of whites’ exists in any form but an entrenched desire to preserve white power at the expense of others. I am sorry for the damage done by my actions and my past endorsement of white nationalism.”
The diversity of the college and their willingness to challenge his ingrained beliefs wound up saving him from a lifetime of hatred. But suddenly his complete denunciation of white supremacy was the top discussion on hate radio and hate chat sites. Instantly, his father banished him from his home. The callers to his radio program were beside themselves with rage. The man they had groomed to be their leader had been “brainwashed” by the libs at New College. Derek, for his part, did not disagree that New College changed him:
Transformation can occur in many ways, but for Black, New College was a living lesson in the persuasive power of critical thinking, and the perfect petri dish for change. Small, socially aware and committed to rational thought, the school encourages students to confront and engage with each other.
“If I’d gone to the University of Florida, I don’t think it would have played out the same,” says Black. “The [UF] community would not have condemned me like that. There would have been maybe a sporadic protest, but I would have found spaces where I didn’t feel as challenged. I guess that’s the point. Engaging is the answer. There’s a thousand ways to do it, and New College did something.”
Although DeSantis claims he targeted the school specifically for their “progressive culture,” the fact is that this particular college dealt a major blow to Florida’s white supremacist movement, which makes up a core part of DeSantis’ base.
Most people who live in this state haven’t even heard about New College until this year, but if you keep track of the state’s white nationalist movement, you know exactly what it is. The hatred they have for this school is unfathomable. It’s no coincidence that this group has become so obsessed with the so-called liberal “indoctrination” at schools. If someone like Derek can change his mind with exposure to diversity, equality, and inclusion, what the hell will that do to people who weren’t raised to hate others?
DeSantis appointed six right-wing extremists with no background in education to New College’s board on Jan. 6 of this year in an effort to completely transform the school. They wasted no time abolishing offices and programs that support minorities, and recently denied tenure to all eligible professors. Yet DeSantis’ fealty to white supremacist groups has gone well beyond New College.
The governor has made numerous laws that are blatantly fascist and racist, which has led to Florida becoming a hellhole of hate. His laws against the teaching of race, sexual orientation, and gender have led to strict book bans in various school districts. Florida’s board of education has banned authors such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Roderick Ferguson, Angela Davis, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Book bans that include any racial subject matter that might make a white person feel bad have been banned, which has extended to books about Rosa Parks and Anne Frank.
Even educational material has been altered, which has led to ridiculous lesson plans that would be funny if not so serious. Lesson plans for the 2022-2023 school year removed race as the reason Rosa Parks was told to change her bus seat. It’s gotten so out of hand in Florida that more than 40% of math textbooks were banned after publishers submitted them for review because they somehow had “woke” ideology.
The governor’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill has terrorized students and teachers in schools across Florida, yet DeSantis has demanded higher education yield to his hateful right-wing vision as well. His “Stop WOKE Act” essentially bans anything being taught that would make a white kid feel guilt, and allows a student or parent to sue.
It was purposefully written to be extremely vague so DeSantis could deny it would prevent teachers from talking about slavery, but also frighten them enough that they would self-censure.
In case you had any doubt of where our governor stood, DeSantis upped the ante by literally banning AP African American studies based on the false claim that they “lack educational value.” No modern governor has ever blocked Black studies, so it’s no wonder neo-Nazis wave DeSantis flags at their rallies. Despite the backlash, DeSantis doubled down by claiming if the college board keeps fighting him on this, he will do away with AP courses altogether.
Yet DeSantis isn’t finished. He announced his intent to defund all programs at public universities that involve any diversity, equity, and inclusion, also known as DEI, which is an open attack on marginalized communities throughout the state. The governor’s office even requested personal exchanges of professors speaking about DEI initiatives. Erasing history and suppressing minority voices has long been a goal of white nationalist leaders. DeSantis, whom they regard as a fascist ally, is trying his best to deliver. This is the one and only time our submissive state legislature slightly pushed back.
It turns out that terminating DEI in Florida colleges would mean losing accreditation for several programs, such as those for mental health professions that require curriculum on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet Republican lawmakers made things worse by replacing the term DEI with a more vague phrase on “theories that undermine institutions in the United States.” Potentially, depending on how that’s interpreted, it could jeopardize even more programs.
The attack on New College is not just another piece of fodder on DeSantis’ culture war, or another attempt to “own the libs.” It was a deliberate assault on an institution that wounded the white supremacist movement. Florida’s GOP is now defined by fringe groups: anti-vaxxers, QAnon, and neo-Nazis. DeSantis is trying to delicately weave a thread to pander and placate them without being too blatant about it.
Beyond his purging of Black history, DeSantis has waged a war on immigrants, targeted gay and transgender youth, purged voters, illegally arrested Black voters, and used state power to punish businesses that criticize him. My home state is now a controlled experiment of how many fascist politics he can get away with. Nazis here know the score, and DeSantis is counting on them to put him in power.
Things are really nasty in Florida now, but if we keep ignoring the GOP’s growing spread of fascism, there is no telling how bad things are going to get from here. Worse is the fact that DeSantis has an unlikely but very real possibility of becoming the next president. If he isn’t stopped now, his dreams of turning our land into a Christian nationalist hellhole might come to pass.
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