Disney is poised to play the spoiler as DeSantis signs new bill defunding DEI at Florida colleges

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis defunded D&I programs at state colleges.
Ricky Carioti—The Washington Post/Getty Images

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law yesterday that will defund diversity and inclusion initiatives at the state’s public colleges and solidify his quest to prevent the teaching of race, identity, and history in the classroom.

“If you look at the way this has actually been implemented across the country, DEI is better viewed as standing for discrimination, exclusion, and indoctrination,” DeSantis said at a news conference discussing the bill. “And that has no place in our public institutions. This bill says the whole experiment with DEI is coming to an end in the state of Florida.”

DeSantis has consistently whipped up public sentiment against what he calls “the state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory” while triggering nationwide alarm with Florida’s 2022 Parental Rights in Education bill, which prohibited discussion of gender and sexual identity in early grades and was later expanded by the state board of education to include grades through 12th. All of this has had a chilling effect on educators, who have canceled classes in increasingly vain attempts to hang on to their jobs.

There are reasons to be hopeful.

In what will likely be a harbinger of more legal action, last November, a Florida judge issued a temporary injunction against DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE Act,” legislation designed to curtail discussion of race in Florida schools and businesses. While the injunction didn’t last, the judge framed the debate for future action by blasting the bill as unconstitutional, Orwellian, and “positively dystopian.”

On another front, a powerful corporate player appears poised to give DeSantis a real fight.

DeSantis has picked a series of expensive legal battles with Disney—and CEO Bob Iger specifically—after the two publicly clashed over the education bill in 2022. DeSantis has now turned Disney into a “woke” leadership talking point and punching bag. Disney, which recently sued the DeSantis administration for “political retaliation,” seems unlikely to tolerate the administration’s attacks on its business or inclusion much longer. “Iger never loses,” Yale management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld tells the Washington Post. “He won’t miss his moment when it comes up.”

But until then, the battles are personal.

Florida fifth-grade teacher Jenna Barbee is under investigation after a parent complained that she showed her students a Disney movie featuring a gay character. The film, Strange World, is about the fragile relationship between humans and the environment and was screened as part of a teaching module on ecosystems and interconnectedness. In a minor subplot, the character has a crush on another boy, which Barbee says she missed.

But that’s not the point, she says.

“[The module] talks about love to all things, and that’s literally what this movie represents,” the Hernando County School District teacher tells NPR. “I find it interesting that now I’m getting in trouble for a similar topic.”

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ruth Umoh.

On Point

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Racism is actually killing you
A new study has preliminarily confirmed for the first time that exposure to high levels of workplace discrimination is associated with a whopping 54% elevated risk of hypertension among U.S. workers. “The adverse impacts of discrimination on cardiovascular disease have major implications for workers' health and indicate a need for government and employer policy interventions addressing discrimination,” researchers conclude.
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On Background

When people resist change
A reader recently asked me to surface some insights that predate the pandemic, the current racial reckoning, and its contentious backlash. What makes people resist change? Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines, writing on behalf of The Energy Project, a leadership development consultancy, help frame the issue in traditional behavioral terms. Specifically, what happens when a business is “disrupted” by a new crisis or opportunity that requires leaders to suddenly show up differently? “[If] employees have long been valued and rewarded for behaviors such as practicality, consistency, self-reliance, and prudence, why wouldn’t they find it uncomfortable to suddenly embrace behaviors such as innovation, agility, collaboration, and boldness?” They don’t get explicit about how this plays out when the disruption is related to identity and equity. But you can connect the dots.

Parting Words

“I just wanted to show people that it’s alright. We don’t need to close the store indefinitely. We know the store is still important to people in this area.”

—Zaire Goodman, who was shot as part of the racist attack at a Buffalo supermarket, in a remembrance ceremony on the one-year anniversary

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