Since the 2020 election, the US right has largely lost its ability to advance policy through the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. Instead, they have turned to state and local governments—along with the federal courts—to implement their agenda. While much of this agenda follows a typical conservative playbook of lower taxes, law-and-order policing, and cuts to social programs, so-called “anti-woke” legislation has assumed a growing profile for Republican politicians.
The term “woke,” drawn from African-American Vernacular English and referring to alertness to racism, sexism, and other social inequalities, has been twisted by conservatives into a symbol of left-wing authoritarianism. Like “political correctness” and “social justice” before it, woke has come to stand in for an ostensibly rigid ideology typified by privileged college students shrieking about racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, advancing a “cancel culture” that threatens to exile even the most established figures for trivial missteps.
Anti-woke laws have targeted an apparently disparate array of societal issues, but they all seek to return the United States to an imagined 1950s, before the social movements of the 60s and beyond expanded the rights and visibility of Black people, women, queer people, and other minorities. These laws seek to restore the authority of white, cisgender, straight father figures in the face of challenges from the “woke mob.”
Advocates of anti-woke laws often style themselves as defenders of “free speech” who seek to protect unpopular opinions from the ravages of cancel culture. Their preferred remedies, however, belie this supposed commitment to free expression and include book bans, attacks on academic freedom, attempts to eliminate transgender people from public life, and various forms of retaliation against the excessively woke. Despite grumbling about cancel culture, the right holds no compunctions about seeking to silence their opponents.
For some socialists, this debate might seem like a distraction, an aspect of the culture wars pitting the neoliberal establishment against the Christian nationalist right, but these laws have real material consequences for the overwhelming majority of the working class who are women, people of color, or queer. For the moment, anti-woke forces are pushing their agenda through school boards, city halls, and state houses, so it is in these spaces—as well as in the streets—that leftists and liberals will need to fight back.
Return to the 1950s
The areas targeted by anti-woke legislation read like a summary of the social movements that have reshaped US society over the past 60 years. Indeed, some of the most insidious of these laws seek to restrict the discussion of those aspects of US society that gave rise to these movements in the first place. Anti-woke laws have taken aim specifically at critical race theory (CRT), LGBTQ+ acceptance, and abortion rights.
Anti-woke laws do not actually target critical race theory. Rather, they seek to sideline any consideration of US history that accurately portrays this country as built on the enslavement, exploitation, and exclusion of Black people as well as the genocide of indigenous peoples. Critical race theory emerged in the 1970s from legal scholarship seeking to show how US law is not race neutral but instead perpetuates racial discrimination. While CRT has since become a multi-disciplinary endeavor that is not confined to law schools, it is fair to say that it is not generally being taught in K-12 schools.
While undoubtedly unfinished, the Black Freedom Movement has reshaped US society. The 2020 uprising for Black lives is both an indictment of how far this country has to go as well as the most salient trigger for the backlash that is driving anti-woke legislation. In the 1960s, this movement won national legislation to protect voting rights and other civil rights—victories that have been partially rolled back in the last decade. Despite these victories, racial inequality has remained persistent, notably in policing and the justice system, but also in education, healthcare, housing, employment, and the right to a healthy environment. In the summer of 2020, simmering anger over these issues was amplified by months of living with a pandemic that disproportionately affected people of color and the police murder of George Floyd, resulting in the largest protests in US history. While the policy victories stemming from these protests have been modest, the backlash has been fierce, with calls from both Republicans and Democrats to “refund the police” (who had never been defunded in the first place) and, as we will see, campaigns to prevent CRT from being taught in schools.
One of the most successful social transformations in recent years is the shift in the broader society’s attitudes toward LGBTQ+ people. At the time of the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot and the 1969 Stonewall riot, queer people were criminalized, discriminated against, and largely reviled. During the 1970s, the Gay Liberation movement made great gains in advancing acceptance of gays and lesbians, albeit through a politics of respectability that excluded transgender people, even though transgender people—in particular Black and Brown transfeminine people like Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera—were among the founders of this movement. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the devastation of the AIDS crisis and the subsequent emergence of queer politics—a militant, inclusive, non-separatist, and anti-assimilationist stance. Since then, these two impulses—accommodationist and queer—have existed in tension within the LGBTQ+ movement. Victory at the Supreme Court in favor of marriage equality illustrates the strengths as well as the limitations of an accommodationist stance while the less celebrated but perhaps more significant Bostock v. Clayton County (2020) prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender identity.
The second and third waves of the women’s movement have similarly achieved a sea change in the position of women in US society. One of the great feminist policy achievements of the twentieth century had been the establishment of abortion as a constitutional right in Roe v. Wade. Overturning Roe had been a rallying cry for the religious right for five decades, so it was shocking but not exactly surprising when the Supreme Court overturned Roe in 2022. While Roe never went far enough in ensuring reproductive justice, its logic has served to undergird a number of court decisions protecting privacy and bodily autonomy. A large majority in the United States supports legal abortion, many of whom considered Roe to be settled law. Roe’s repeal has angered and mobilized many. Facing this backlash, it is unsurprising that abortion is starting to become a focus of the anti-woke brigade.
It is not coincidental that the areas targeted by anti-woke laws match up so neatly with the social movements that have sought since the 1960s to make the United States more just, more inclusive, and more equal. Each of these movements has been animated by the political assertion of groups that had been heretofore excluded from full participation in US politics and society. Anti-woke campaigners seek to return the United States to the status quo ante as they imagine it to have been. In this imagined, idealized 1950s, men are men and women are women and each gender has clearly defined social roles. Racial conflict does not exist, and school kids learn to celebrate the founding fathers without dwelling on their roles in advancing slavery and genocide. Queer people, if we exist at all, have returned to the closet. The right knows that it is losing the culture wars. Even intensely conservative institutions in US society, like major corporations and Hollywood, feel compelled to at least pay lip service to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Human resources departments encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work, and corporate brands bedeck their logos in rainbows every June. Corporations have embraced “Black lives matter” as a slogan, even if their policies lag behind. Needless to say, corporate America’s “wokeness” is only skin deep, but even this is anathema to a resurgent white Christian nationalist right.
From Slogans to Policies
Anti-woke laws, then, seek to restrict the expression of views that run counter to white Christian nationalism. Most prominently, these laws have focused on anti-racism and LGBTQ+ issues (especially related to transgender people), but they have also targeted reproductive rights and feminism more broadly. Since Democrats control the White House and Congress, Republicans have sought to push their agenda where they can. This means that school boards, city governments, state agencies, and state legislatures have become critical battlegrounds. No longer are the federal courts reliable safeguards of constitutional rights. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s and former President Donald Trump’s successful campaign to pack the courts—including the Supreme Court—means that Federalist Society ideologues—conservative lawyers who seek to move the courts to the right—now dominate the federal judiciary and cannot be counted upon to overturn even obviously unconstitutional policies.
There is no single template for anti-woke laws. Although, as we will see, there are templates in the form of model legislation, a convenience for right-wing legislators. Some of these policies seek to ban books, removing them from school and public libraries and even bookstores. Others seek to shape education policy by restricting discussion of race, gender, and sexuality. A particularly onerous subset of these laws directly targets the free expression of transgender people through the policing of our bodies, either by excluding us from sports or preventing access to gender-affirming healthcare. Some of these laws retaliate against companies that adopt “woke” policies. While diverse in their methods, these laws all seek to restrict any form of expression that runs counter to white Christian nationalism.
Few attacks on expression could be more blatant than banning books. Such bans most often take the form of removing books from school libraries, but public libraries and even private bookstores have been targeted as well. While libraries are at the center of such controversies, they are not merely embattled. Large public library systems, such as those in New York City, have taken the initiative of making banned books available nationwide.
According to PEN America, during the last school year, 138 school districts in 32 states banned 1,648 individual titles. These districts contain 5,049 schools and enroll nearly 4 million students. Of the banned books, 41% address LGBTQ+ themes or have major queer characters, 40% have major characters of color, 21% deal with issues of race and racism, and 22% contain sexual content. At least 40% of these bans are related to “proposed or enacted legislation, or to political pressure exerted by state officials or elected lawmakers to restrict the teaching or presence of certain books or concepts.”
The most commonly banned books deal with LGBTQ+ themes. The most banned book was Gender Queer, Maia Kobabe’s comic book memoir about growing up nonbinary. Several factors contributed to the targeting of Gender Queer in particular. As a graphic novel, it includes drawings of “nude characters and sexual scenarios,” although there are no sex scenes, and it frankly deals with gender identity and sexuality at a time when these topics have become increasingly controversial. The second most banned book was another memoir, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, about “growing up as a queer Black man in New Jersey and Virginia.”
While school libraries have been the primary focus of book bans, public libraries are not exempt. Earlier this year, Ridgeland, Mississippi Mayor Gene McGee demanded the local public library remove LGBTQ+ books or face the loss of city funding. In response, the library’s volunteer group launched a fundraising campaign, accruing nearly $80,000.
With libraries in the spotlight, it is unsurprising that librarians have taken the lead in opposing book bans. Both the New York and Brooklyn public libraries have launched initiatives to make banned e-books available to non-residents as a means to circumvent bans elsewhere. NYPL’s Books for All initiative allows readers over 13 to check out a selection of banned books while BPL’s Books Unbanned makes such books available to readers aged 13-21.
In Virginia, Republican state delegate Tim Anderson sought unsuccessfully to ban the sale to minors of Gender Queer as well as Sara Maas’ A Court of Mist and Fury on the basis of obscenity. A state court judge, however, ruled that the law on which Anderson was basing his petition created an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech in violation of the First Amendment.
While conservative critics of “wokeness” often point to “cancel culture” as an example of creeping left-wing authoritarianism, efforts to ban books for queer or race-related content belies their supposed commitment to free speech. By taking books off library shelves and even challenging their sale by private businesses, opponents of wokeness seek to eliminate topics that are not compatible with their vision of a white Christian nation. These bans are inextricably related to attempts to reshape school curricula.
“Don’t Say Gay”
The anti-woke law that has received the most attention is undoubtedly Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. While this attention is well deserved, this focus can obscure the fact that even within the realm of educational policy, Florida is far from alone in passing such a law. Several other states already have similar laws on the books and new laws have been passed in states like Georgia, where a “divisive concepts” bill targets far more than LGBTQ+ issues.
In April, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill, commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. True to its informal moniker, this law does ban “instruction or classroom discussion about LGBTQ issues for kindergarten through third grade.” It also more vaguely dictates that, for older students, discussions of these issues must be “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” This vagueness is particularly worrying because the bill also gives parents the power to sue schools if they do not like what is being taught. This provision is likely to have a chilling effect on any and all discussions of LGBTQ+ issues. Additionally, the bill mandates that schools tell parents when their children receive “mental health services.” Critics of the bill worry that this provision will take away school as a potential safe haven for students who do not feel safe disclosing their sexuality or gender identity at home.
At least 20 states have proposed laws similar to Florida’s. Alabama passed a similar law as a surprise amendment to an anti-trans bathroom bill, which is surprising only because the state had repealed a similar law (enacted in 1992) just last year. In fact, several states—including Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, South Carolina, Arizona, and Utah—already have versions of this law on the books, which were passed during previous anti-gay panics between 1987 and 2001. Until this year, these laws seemed increasingly archaic with five states repealing such laws between 2006 and 2021.
In other states, statutes inspired by the backlash against critical race theory and targeting the teaching of race-related issues have been proposed or become law. In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp signed into law the “Protect Students First Act,” which bans the promotion or encouragement of certain “divisive concepts” in schools. These divisive concepts are all related to race and ethnicity and include ideas like, “One race is inherently superior to another race,” “The United States of America is fundamentally racist,” and “An individual, by virtue of his or her race, is inherently or consciously racist or oppressive toward individuals of other races.” Additionally, due to a surprise last-minute amendment, this bill established a trans sports ban, which will be addressed in the following section. Georgia is not alone in passing a bill restricting teaching around issues of race and racism. Other states—like Iowa and Oklahoma—have gone farther and applied these laws to colleges and universities in addition to K-12 schools.
As with book bans, then, anti-woke attempts to shape school curricula focus primarily on excluding discussions of LGBTQ+ issues, race, and racism. Yet again, in the name of opposing a woke agenda, white Christian nationalists advance their blinkered vision of US society. Book bans and curriculum gags are not the only ways in which this agenda is shaping educational policy. Other laws and state policies seek to police the bodies of transgender students.
Policing Trans Bodies
While anti-woke legislation targets a variety of communities and concepts, transgender people are scapegoated at levels that are wildly disproportionate to our relatively small numbers. Anti-trans bills and policies have played into popular portrayals of trans bodies as monstrous and tend to focus on bodies as such, particularly but not exclusively in relation to genitalia. These policies most directly affect trans youth and include bans on transgender participation in sport, policies that mandate use of bathrooms and other facilities in accordance with gender assigned at birth, other changes in educational policy, and obstacles to accessing gender-affirming healthcare.
Several states have taken measures to prevent minors from receiving gender-affirming healthcare. Alabama passed a law making it a felony to prescribe hormones or puberty blockers to trans youth. The bill also bans genital surgery on minors—something which does not happen—while making exceptions for circumcision and for “individuals with sexual development disorders.” Intersex people have long advocated for banning non-consensual genital surgeries on intersex minors, but this legislation explicitly allows such surgeries, rejecting the bodily autonomy of trans and intersex people in one neat package. In Florida, the state medical board, controlled by Governor DeSantis, is in the process of enacting a similar ban without going through the state legislature.
A number of states have enacted bans preventing transgender people from participating in sports. As of September 2022, 18 states have passed laws prohibiting trans athletes from competing on teams consistent with their gender identity. These laws are concerned primarily with women’s and girls’ sports despite the fact that evidence does not support the contention that trans women and girls have innate advantages over cis women and girls and despite the fact that vanishingly few trans girls are competing in high school sports. In Georgia, the legislature did not pass an outright ban but rather authorized the Georgia High School Association to implement such a policy, which it promptly did despite not being aware of a single student who would be immediately affected.
Sports bans may be the most ubiquitous policy affecting trans youth, but states and localities have proposed and passed a variety of anti-trans policies. As mentioned above, Alabama passed a law mandating that students use bathrooms in accordance with their sex assigned at birth that also includes a don’t-say-gay-style amendment. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott bypassed the legislative process and used an executive order to direct the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate the parents of trans children. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin has used his executive power to advance new policies that restrict the rights of trans students, including with regards to bathroom access, sports participation, and the right to be referred to by accurate names and pronouns. Such policies are not taking effect without resistance, and on September 27, 2022, Virginia trans students and their allies walked out of their schools in opposition to these policies.
Anti-trans sentiment has a prominent place in anti-woke politics wildly out of proportion to the number of trans people in society. Many of these laws focus on trans bodies in particular, portraying our bodies as grotesque, threatening, or pitiable. Bans against trans girls participating in K-12 sports, for example, frame trans bodies as threatening cis girls. This framing is rooted in the cult of innocence of white girlhood, the protection of which is a core component of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Indeed, the current wave of anti-trans sports bills was ignited by two Black trans girls, Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, who won Connecticut state championships in 2018, leading to racist, sexist, and transphobic media scrutiny of their bodies. Transphobia allows white Christian nationalists to advance their white supremacist agenda without explicit racism, which allows them to draw support from apparently unlikely allies.
The Woke of Wall Street
Corporate America is hardly known as a bastion of the left, but many companies are concerned with advancing a progressive image and have taken stances on gun control, climate change, diversity, abortion, and other issues. Republican-led states have sought to punish these companies with “at least 44 bills or new laws in 17 conservative-led states” in 2022, a drastic increase from last year. These laws pressure companies to resist pressure from workers, investors, and customers to take positions on controversial issues.
West Virginia and Arkansas stopped using BlackRock services due to their stance on climate. Texas excluded JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs from the municipal bond market in accordance with new laws “barring firms that ‘boycott’ energy companies or ‘discriminate’ against the firearms industry from doing new business with the state.”
Such retaliation is not limited to financial firms. In Florida, following Disney’s tepid opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the state passed a law stripping Disney of “the special governing jurisdiction that allows the company to operate Walt Disney World Resort as its own city.”
In the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, a number of companies implemented polices that would cover travel costs for employees who need to travel out of state for abortions. In Texas, proposed legislation would “outlaw such coverage and prohibit companies that provide it from receiving any Texas state business or contracts.”
For many on the left, battles between large corporations and conservative politicians might seem like a positive development. The likes of BlackRock and Disney are not our friends, even if they might occasionally do the right thing. However, without a countervailing force, such measures could serve to discourage even half-hearted support for human rights, much less more ambitious goals like divestment from fossil fuels. Workers and consumers can influence even the largest corporations sometimes. These laws tilt the playing field and thus have real material consequences.
A Well-Funded Network
This overview of anti-woke policies that have been enacted or proposed at the state and local level is by no means comprehensive, but it does provide a sense of the huge swell in such policies that has occurred in the past year. This increase is not the coincidental result of unique local political conditions but rather the result of organized, well-funded networks. These policies do not reflect organic local sentiment, but are driven by national organizations.
Advocates for book banning are a well organized force. PEN America has identified “50 groups operating at the national, state, or local level,” most of which have formed in the last year. One such group is Moms for Liberty, which began last year in Florida to fight for “parental rights” and which has now spread nationwide. In addition to advocating the removal of LGBTQ+ rights and CRT from school libraries and curricula, Moms for Liberty has argued against mask and vaccine mandates.
Such bans cannot be separated from other anti-LGBTQ+ school policy bills. According to Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD, an NGO that monitors LGBTQ+ discrimination in media, “Banning books is just one arm of a larger, organized campaign to target and harass LGBTQ youth nationwide. There’s no separating book bans from ‘Don’t Say Gay’ laws, attacks on healthcare and sports for trans youth, and the hundreds of other bills and policies that put LGBTQ youth at the center of a target built by extremist groups and politicians.”
By advancing these policies in many states at once, the anti-woke brigade can avoid the kind of backlash that North Carolina faced in 2016 after passing a bill that “banned trans people from using public restrooms aligned with their gender identity.” Following this law, boycotts cost the state $3.76 billion and contributed to the defeat of the state’s Republican Governor Pat McCrory. While North Carolina’s bathroom bill stood alone, anti-trans sports bans have spread like wildfire, with 2020 seeing such legislation filed in at least twenty states without any significant boycotts.
A network of right-wing groups is advancing anti-trans policies. One of the most significant of these is Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which conducts trainings and legal advocacy. Designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, this group has “supported the recriminalization of sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ adults,” “defended state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad,” and “contended that LGBTQ people are more likely to engage in pedophilia.” They have joined together with the Heritage Foundation and the Family Policy Alliance to found an umbrella group, Promise to America’s Children, which shares “a model trans sports ban on their website.” Other organizations have directly intervened in electoral politics. During the 2020 election, American Principles Project spent over $5 million “combined with their affiliated super PAC on ads arguing Democrats’ support for trans athletes posed a threat to women’s sports, among other messaging points. Funding for these campaigns has flowed from figures like former Secretary of Education Betsy Devos as well as from white Christian nationalist organizations like The Council for a National Policy, the National Christian Foundation, the New Apostolic Reformation, and Dominionists. Fox News has served as a megaphone for these organizations, airing more segments on trans athletes in the first half of 2021 than in the previous two years combined.
Having lost at the Supreme Court in matters of marriage equality and employment discrimination, opponents of LGBTQ+ equality have turned their focus to trans bodies. Sports bans and other anti-trans legislation functions as a PR campaign to rally the right-wing base. While this issue remains sharply partisan in the United States, conservatives see transphobia as a wedge issue. Republicans have formed alliances with ostensible feminists (so-called trans-exclusionary radical feminists or TERFs) and some liberals by advancing emotional narratives around protecting girls’ sports. Leading Democrats have not offered a compelling counter-narrative, allowing Republicans to claim an electoral advantage while sowing anti-trans hate.
The anti-woke agenda is nothing new in US politics. It functions in exactly the same way as previous moral panics about “political correctness” or “social justice”. What is new are the precise contours of the current debate. In the wake of the 2020 uprising against racist police violence, “critical race theory” has come to stand in for anti-Black racism. Following Supreme Court decisions legalizing gay marriage and prohibiting anti-LGBTQ+ employment discrimination, transphobia has similarly come to function as a rallying cry for anti-LGBTQ+ forces who have otherwise found themselves consistently on the losing side of the culture wars.
To be sure, the anti-woke agenda is not limited to these two areas—opposition to corporate policies around gun control, abortion, climate change, and LGBTQ+ rights more generally are all important planks in this agenda—it is in these particular areas that this agenda has found the most success. In both cases, proposals and legislation at the state and local levels are succeeding in changing the national conversation. Instead of talking about urgent matters like defunding the police—much less prison-industrial-complex abolition—we’re discussing whether critical race theory should be taught in kindergarten. Instead of expanding protections against employment discrimination and advancing other policies to ensure the rights of queer people, we’re talking about whether trans girls mere participation in sports is fair to cis girls.
Anti-woke legislation stems from the culture war, but it has real material consequences. For advocates of this legislation, however, the harm they are doing is almost beside the point. Anti-trans legislation, for instance, serves as a rallying cry for social conservatives and as a potential wedge issue for attracting certain swing voters. These laws do make trans people’s lives more difficult, but trans people are neither the true subjects nor objects of these debates. Rather, we are the ground on which white Christian nationalists can construct their vision of an ethno-theocratic nation.
Many prominent Democrats are reluctant to directly challenge elements of the anti-woke agenda. Hillary Clinton for one has suggested that protecting the rights of transgender people should be contingent on its impact on Democrats’ electoral prospects. This is a false dichotomy. As long as Republicans can go unchallenged in advancing emotional narratives about protecting women’s sports or indoctrinating schoolchildren into critical race theory, progressives will remain on the back foot. Leftists and liberals need to bring the same passion to an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic agenda as the right brings to its anti-woke agenda or else we will lose, not only on these issues and not only in the realm of electoral politics. We’re all in this together, and we can’t leave anyone behind as we fight for a better world.
Jamie Hare is a researcher and writer based in Decatur, Georgia.
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