Erika D. Smith: DeSantis is waging a ‘battle for reality’ with his anti-trans, anti-Black book bans

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For a few precious hours last week, I almost believed that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — fresh off a glitchy presidential campaign announcement that made him the laughingstock of the Twittersphere — might have to slither away from the national political stage and head back to some swamp in his home state.

But alas, that was never going to happen.

As odious as DeSantis is, it has become increasingly clear that his culture-war antics, especially his anti-trans, anti-Black crusade to ban books, which recently ensnared Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” are more popular among Americans than they should be.

Consider that in the first 24 hours after DeSantis declared on Twitter Spaces that he would seek the Republican nomination, his campaign managed to raise a whopping $8.2 million from donors large and small. The haul included $1 million in a single hour.

To put things in perspective, Joe Biden raised only $6.3 million in his first 24 hours as a presidential candidate back in 2019. And late last year, Donald Trump raised a mere $9.5 million or so in about six weeks after announcing he would run again.

So how should we think about this apparent newfound love of censorship for what’s often the most bigoted of reasons?

For guidance, I decided to ask the man who helped teach me and millions of other Americans how to read — LeVar Burton, the founder and star of the long-running PBS series “Reading Rainbow.”

On the same day that DeSantis was droning on about “wokeism” to the Twitter faithful, Burton was at ASU California in downtown Los Angeles giving a talk on the “State of Banned Books” with the L.A. Times Book Club. I caught up with him backstage, scrolling through Twitter.

“I am shocked to discover that America has such an attachment to ignorance. I thought we were better than this. I really did,” Burton told me, shaking his head in sadness. “Well, we’re not. So we have to deal with it. We have to fight back. And then we have to continue to tell the truth.”

But what exactly does “fight back” mean and “tell the truth” mean?

A little later, while onstage with my colleague Steve Padilla, Burton brought up Gorman, an Angeleno and the first National Youth Poet Laureate, as an example of both. She is supporting a lawsuit to challenge bans and restrictions put on books at Florida schools.

Her own book, “The Hill We Climb,” which essentially is the poem she read to an audience of millions at President Biden’s inauguration, was taken away from elementary students in Miami-Dade County after a single parent complained that it was written to “cause confusion and indoctrinate students” and contained “indirect hate messages.”

Brace yourself for “hate” and “indoctrination.” This is what Gorman wrote:

We’ve braved the belly of the beast

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.

And the norms and notions of what ‘just is’

Isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.

Somehow, we do it.

Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed

A nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.

Unsurprisingly, the parent who complained about “The Hill We Climb,” Daily Salinas of Miami Lakes, has a history of social media posts that praise white supremacists and antisemitism. She also listed Oprah Winfrey as the author instead of Gorman.

I mean, all Black women look alike, right?

“I don’t believe the woman read the book she was able to get banned,” Burton quipped.

DeSantis, meanwhile, has repeatedly dismissed the controversy over “The Hill We Climb” as a “hoax.”

“There’s not been a single book banned in the state of Florida; you can go buy or use whatever book you want,” he insisted on Twitter Spaces, garnering murmurs of agreement from Elon Musk and cadre of other right-wing tech bros. “What we have done is empowered parents with the ability to review the curriculum to know what books are being used in school, and then to ensure that those books match state standards and are age and developmentally appropriate.”

But this very political targeting of books in schools is about much more than that. It’s about making sure another generation subscribes to a white supremacist worldview by perpetuating ignorance about the lives and experiences of people from long-marginalized communities.

As Gorman wrote on Twitter and Instagram: “Most of the forbidden works are by authors who have struggled for generations to get on bookshelves. The majority of these censored works are by queer and non-white voices.”

Indeed, in a recent analysis by the Washington Post of books that were challenged in dozens of school districts in the 2021-22 school year, 43% of the complaints were aimed at books with LGBTQ characters and themes. Another 36% had major characters of color or explored issues of race and racism.

It’s the very embodiment of DeSantis’ hateful, “anti-woke” agenda — and that’s no accident.

“A person who has the control of the narrative has control over how you will or will not be remembered as part of the historical record,” Burton said. “And so this is really a battle for truth. It’s a battle for reality. It’s a battle for control.”

What’s scary is it seems to be working.

A new poll found that nearly 60% of American adults believe a person’s gender is determined at birth and, as such, basically don’t believe it’s possible to be transgender. A majority also support policies targeting trans children that mirror what has been introduced and, in many cases, passed in dozens of Republican-led state legislatures during the past year.

“They lie and they lie and they lie, until the lie becomes the truth in some people’s minds,” Burton told me.

This is what fighting back means. It’s refusing to be quiet about what’s really at stake for the country and its most vulnerable residents, as DeSantis and his fellow Republican politicians attempt to make banning books sound perfectly normal and reasonable.

“I did not see this coming,” Burton admitted, “so I am not going to try and predict what’s going to happen next. I just, I feel like we are in the eye of the storm and/or maybe the leading edge of the storm. We haven’t gotten to the eyewall yet. And I just, I have no idea what’s coming behind it. But I do know we need to be ready. We need to be vigilant. We need to be prepared and we need to be warriors — for truth.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.