Can FL schools, workplaces discuss Saturday’s ‘racially motivated’ shooting in Buffalo under HB 7?

By: - May 17, 2022 7:00 am

Students in a classroom. Credit: Getty Images.

On Saturday at a Buffalo supermarket, a white 18-year-old gunman killed 10 Black people, and the shootings are being looked at as a racist hate crime, according to The Buffalo News in New York.

The alleged killer was identified in the News as Payton Gendron, 18, near Binghamton in the southern part of the state. And the young man may have written a 180-page long diatribe claiming he’s a white supremacist, according to The Washington Post.

With race being a key factor in this weekend’s shooting, the tragedy poses a question for Florida: Would public schools and workplaces be able to approach the racial component to this tragic killing? Or would a new law, taking effect on July 1, limit employers and teachers from discussing this element of the mass shooting?

According to some state lawmakers, it’s not clear how race could be discussed when the new law, called HB 7, takes effect this summer.

“I wish I knew,” Sen. Tina Polsky told the Phoenix, but HB 7 and other bills like it are “so vague, purposefully, that you don’t even know what you can do as a company, or maybe as a teacher.” She’s a Democrat who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

HB 7 restricts certain conversations about race and gender in schools and workplaces. Described as “Individual Freedom,” the legislation allows for people to file complaints for discrimination if they are subjected to certain so-called principles. And those complaints could lead to jury trials or other causes of action. The measure could involve everyone from parents of public schoolchildren to employees at numerous workplaces.

Sometimes referred to as the “Stop WOKE Act,” it was one of the Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature bills pushed through in the two-month legislative session in 2022. He signed it into law April 22.

Florida isn’t the only state to grapple with these questions.

In Georgia, “starting in the fall, history teachers will be navigating a raft of new laws passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp ostensibly aimed at taking politics out of classrooms.

“The law that originated as House Bill 1084 bars teachers from discussing nine so-called divisive concepts, including that the United States is inherently racist, that a person should be discriminated against because of their race or that an individual bears responsibility for misdeeds committed by others of the same race,” according to the Georgia Recorder, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom, which includes the Florida Phoenix.

That sounds quite a bit like HB 7 in Florida.

Sen. Polsky, in Florida, continued:

“I think these events are just like any other events, and they should be talked about in schools. Or if a workplace chooses to discuss it — there are probably people who are upset…But would a white supremacist say ‘you’re making me feel uncomfortable because I believe in the same thing this guy did and now you’re putting him down?’ I guess they could feel that way, but that’s why these laws are so ridiculous. It’s protecting, potentially a white supremacist or a bigot being made to feel uncomfortable.”

Polsky is referencing a so-called principle in HB 7 that is prohibited under the legislation: “A person should not be instructed that he or she must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions, in which he or she played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”

HB 7 spurred controversy during the 2022 session, as many Democratic lawmakers saw the bill as a solution looking for a problem and could stifle frank conversations of racism in America in schools and workplaces.

Other principles in the new law that shouldn’t be espoused, include:

/“An individual, by virtue of his or her race, color sex, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

/”No race is inherently superior to another race.”

/”Such virtues as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race, color, national origin, or sex to oppress members of another race, color, national origin, or sex.”

Polsky argued that not talking about the racial components to violence such as the Saturday shooting in Buffalo and systemic racism could lead to more white supremacist attacks in the future.

Polsky says that the point of the bill is to provide a “chilling effect” in Florida classrooms and workplaces.

Rep. Dotie Joseph, a Democrat who represents part of Miami-Dade County, says that workplaces and schools need to be able to talk about the racial components to this weekend’s shooting and other aspects of racism in the United States.

“Regardless of what this backwards law says, our communities (including at the schoolhouse and workplace) NEED to have the FREEDOM to think critically about and analyze topics like white supremacist ideologies, this country’s history of oppression and liberation, and even get into the immorality of the shooting…These honest and often painful discussions need to be had even if and especially when they make some ‘feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.'”

Joseph said that “HB 7 overbroadly redefines discrimination as including training or instruction on one’s status as either privileged or oppressed’ when that is clearly at play” in the Saturday shooting.

“From the fact that the shooter is even still alive, to how the people in that particular zip code was targeted, and the racial epithets on the gun used to oppress, terrorize and KILL people based on their race,” Joseph said in an email.

“It is infuriating that my colleagues, wittingly or unwittingly, are active accomplices to using policies to perpetuate discrimination by censuring and punishing people from engaging in the free and healing discourse needed to dismantle discrimination.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.