The New York Times published an article on February 6 that framed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ and other Republicans’ anti-civil rights educational policies and proposals entirely through a lens of electoral efficacy, rather than foregrounding their discriminatory effects.
The piece follows a pair of stories from about a week earlier that similarly failed in capturing the depth and purpose of DeSantis’ attacks on LGBTQ, Black, and other marginalized students.
The latest piece, headlined “Education Issues Vault to Top of the G.O.P.’s Presidential Race,” asks whether conservatives’ bigoted approach to public education will translate into success at the ballot box — the moral and journalistic equivalent of evaluating Nixon’s racist “southern strategy” only with regard to its electoral outcomes.
Here’s how the Times begins the piece:
With a presidential primary starting to stir, Republicans are returning with force to the education debates that mobilized their staunchest voters during the pandemic and set off a wave of conservative activism around how schools teach about racism in American history and tolerate gender fluidity.
From the outset, the piece obscures the power dynamics at play. Conservatives, led by DeSantis, are overtly criminalizing teaching about racism and gender and sexual identities. Yet nothing about this lead conveys the asymmetric relation between the reactionary forces and the groups they are seeking to further oppress.
The article then describes DeSantis as the movement’s “loudest champion,” a value-neutral phrase that further elides the governor’s discriminatory policies, before adding that former President Donald Trump, the only Republican who has declared their candidacy for president, has “sought to catch up with even hotter language.”
That “hotter language” is better characterized as genocidal or eliminationist anti-trans rhetoric, as Trump has proposed a federal law stating that “the only genders recognized by the United States government are male and female, and they are assigned at birth.”
The article then settles into the framing for the rest of the piece. The question the Times asks here isn’t about the moral, ethical, or practical implications of the Republican Party uniting in a push to use the power of the state to discriminate against oppressed communities under the guise of “parents’ rights.” The Times instead asks whether this barely disguised bigotry is a good or bad electoral strategy.
Yet, in its appeal to voters, culture-war messaging concerning education has a decidedly mixed track record. While some Republicans believe that the issue can win over independents, especially suburban women, the 2022 midterms showed that attacks on school curriculums — specifically on critical race theory and so-called gender ideology — largely were a dud in the general election.
This framing treats LGBTQ and Black youth as nothing but pawns in a contest for power. Regardless of the electoral efficacy of “culture-war messaging” — a euphemism for policies that maintain existing power hierarchies across race and gender — the strategy is to manufacture and exploit existing fears about Black and queer liberation. Any reporting that seeks to answer the question of whether this is likely to be a successful strategy needs to foreground that basic, fundamental fact from the outset.
The Times then uses the phrases “cultural issues” and “cultural fights” as a euphemism for anti-LGBTQ and anti-Black policies, further mystifying the power discrepancy between the conservatives pushing this agenda and the communities that will be criminalized and punished by it.
It’s not until the 12th paragraph that the Times even introduces the idea that these policies may be discriminatory.
Democrats decried that and other education policies from the governor as censorship and as attacks on the civil rights of gay and transgender people. Critics called the Florida law “Don’t Say Gay.”
The Times’ first quoted expert, longtime Republican activist Whit Ayres, celebrates DeSantis’ bigoted policies by explaining that they might have broader reach beyond the hardline conservative base.
“The culture war issues are most potent among Republican primary voters, but that doesn’t mean that an education message can’t be effective with independent voters or the electorate as a whole,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, who worked for Mr. DeSantis during his first governor’s race in 2018.
This quote further treats LGBTQ and Black students and their families as abstractions, leaving readers unaware of the material consequences of these laws and policies. Teachers have faced increasing discrimination and risk having their licenses revoked under the laws, and as many as half of the state's LGBTQ parents are considering leaving in response.
Over several paragraphs, the Times details various electoral outcomes of Republicans who tried to emulate DeSantis’ bigoted approach, and their mixed results. That information is important, but it’s secondary to the discriminatory effects of the polices the piece is highlighting. As a result, the Times focuses on the electoral stakes for Republicans at the expense of the personal stakes for those being targeted.
The Times also fails to quote any identified Black or LGBTQ critics of these policies.
The question the Times poses — can conservatives successfully weaponize and operationalize racism and anti-LGBTQ bigtory? — isn’t one that can be asked in a value-neutral way. To take DeSantis’ and other Republicans’ policies at face value is to side with them by obscuring the existing power dynamics, and to treat LGBTQ and Black students as little more than objects for political horse race coverage.