Excerpted From: Keeshea Turner Roberts, Indoctrination at its Apex: 'Stop Woke Act’ and its Ramifications on Law Schools and Professors of Color, 30 Widener Law Review 25 (2024) (123 Footnotes) (Full Document Requested)

KeesheaTurnerRobertsMerriam-Webster dictionary defines “Woke” as being “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” However, the word woke has various meanings, both political and non-political. The word woke has been around for a very long time. One can find passages in the Bible and Hebrew Bible extoling followers to stay awake and be aware. The word is used in movies and music. But what does the word woke truly mean?

B. African American Usage of “Woke”

African Americans have used the word woke throughout the 19 and 20 centuries. The usage of the word 'woke’ was a “signal urging Black people to be aware of the systems that harm and otherwise put [Black people] at a disadvantage.” In the 1920s, the great Pan African leader Marcus Garvey often used words such as “woke” and “awake.”. In The Philosophy and Opinions, Mr. Garvey urged African Americans, “to awake; he is aroused; he listens no longer to the flattery and the blandishments of the politician; he is beginning to look facts in the face.” Blue musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter penned a protest song in 1938 in response to a miscarriage of justice in Alabama. In 1931, a group of nine Black teenagers were accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama. The “Scottsboro Boys” were tried multiple times and were found guilty of rape and sentenced to death. In his song, Lead Belly described the incident and advised African Americans to, “be a little careful when they go along through there--best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”

C. Wokeism and the Civil Rights Movement

“Let us stand up. Let us be a concerned generation. Let us remain awake through a great revolution. And we will speed up that great day when the American Dream will be a reality.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

A revival of the usage of the word woke into the mainstream was introduced in an essay published in the New York Times in 1962. The essay titled, “If You're Woke You Dig It,” was written by a young African American novelist named William Melvin Kelley. In the article, Kelley examined the appropriation of Black American slang by the dominant white culture. Specifically, he asserted “that the origins of the language of the beatnik culture - words like “cool” and “dig” - lay not within white America but with Black America, predominantly among Black jazz musicians.” Further, he wrote that, “the language seems to be modified in two ways ... [the] first way is to give a word, already in use, its opposite meaning. At one time, the connotations of “jive” were all good; now they are bad, or at least questionable.” Although Kelley doesn't specifically define woke, his piece “implies that to be 'woke’ is to be a socially conscious Black American, someone aware of the ephemeral nature of Black vernacular, who might actively be shifting that vernacular away from white people who would exploit it or change its meaning.”

Even the apostle of peace, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at length about the need to be “Woke.” In June 1965, Dr. King was invited by Oberlin College to give the Commencement Address. In that address entitled, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” he challenged graduates to be aware and not to “fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that a new situation [a great period of social change] demand.” For if they do, Dr. King asserted that “there is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.” Dr. King viewed this social revolution as “sweeping away the old order of slavery and racial segregation.”

D. Revival of Wokeism: Ferguson Uprising

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time--and in one's work. And part of the rage is this: It isn't only what is happening to you. But it's what's happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance. Now, since this is so, it's a great temptation to simplify the issues under the illusion that if you simplify them enough, people will recognize them. I think this illusion is very dangerous because, in fact, it isn't the way it works. A complex thing can't be made simple. You simply have to try to deal with it in all its complexity and hope to get that complexity across.

James Baldwin

The tragic death of 18-year-old African American Michael Brown, a Ferguson, Missouri native, on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri by police officer Darren Wilson, was the latest in a series of high-profile killings of unarmed African American men and women by law enforcement in the United States. Mr. Brown's murder in a suburb outside of St. Louis sparked another “mid-century civil rights movement.”

St. Louis and Ferguson communities have deep-rooted “history of racial and economic inequality, as exhibited through slavery, de jure, and de facto segregation.” Ferguson continued to be one of the more segregated cities in the United States. In fact, Ferguson “was (and still is) a majority black suburb.” Most of its residents live in high-poverty areas. With underperforming schools and very little in the way of educational or financial support, many African Americans find it nearly impossible to improve their lives. Young black men seem to have a specifically difficult time residing in Ferguson. A disproportionate number of these young men are overrepresented in the number of offenders arrested and imprisoned and among those who are shot and killed.

The Ferguson Police Department is “overwhelming[ly] white in a city that is majority black.” In fact, the United States Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson Police Department found that: Ferguson's law enforcement practices are shaped by the City's focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson's police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson's police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. These kinds of practices as well as the killing of young black men continued to fuel racial and economic tensions between the police department and the African American residents.

In the aftermath of Mr. Brown's death, organizers, advocates, and protestors gathered in Ferguson, “trying to bring attention to what they call another instance of police injustice.” Words such as 'Black Lives Matters,’ and 'I Can't Breathe,’ permeated the lexicon of mainstream media and social media. Additionally, 'Stay Woke’ made it into the Urban Dictionary's lexicon. The phrase was linked directly to the Ferguson Uprising: Deriving from “stay awake,' is to keep informed of the shitstorm going on around you in times of turmoil and conflict, specifically on occasions when the media is being heavily filtered-such as the events in Ferguson Missouri in August 2014.

This “Great Awokening” reenergized people, black and white, to put “their bodies, ballot and bucks on the line of defense for a more just America - one that doesn't create neighborhoods for some, but rather communities for all.”

E. Anti-Wokeism Backlash: A Label Without Meaning

The meaning of 'Woke’ is (and continues to be) turned on its head. The meaning, once positive, is now considered by most conservatives as, “a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down.” Yet, there is no true census on what 'Woke’ means. Some conservatives view 'Woke’ as, “instinctual - like you know when you see it ....” Others stated that: when something is deemed to be 'woke’ .... [i[t's more talking about a particular worldview of racial, social hierarchies and social leveling and things like that. If you're using it the right way, it does have a distinct meaning, but there is also obviously a tendency to just call any and everything 'woke’ when it might mean 'liberal’ and those don't exactly mean the same thing.

The word 'Woke’ is linked with a person who is being “performative or phony.” For example, the right uses the term to denigrate all manner of avowedly egalitarian gestures, causes, and arguments: a multinational looking to appeal to young urban consumers (and deflect attention from its serial violations of labor rights) by associating its brand name with opposition to police violence; a university student declaring that wearing braids is cultural appropriate; a film studio allowing a nonwhite actress to play a mermaid; the idea that persistent disparities in socioeconomic outcomes between white and Black Americans partly derive from the latter's subjection to centuries of enslavement, disenfranchisement, and dispossession. All of these are 'woke,’ in conservatives' estimation. In other instances, 'Woke’ is synonymous with “political correctness” and “cancellation.”

[. . .]

This essay delved deeply into the effectiveness of the successive waves of anti-”woke” legislation in the state of Florida and explored their broader implications. The implications go beyond a mere examination of how these laws impact a professor's ability to exercise academic freedom when integrating anti-racism content into their curricula. There is a complex intersection of the 'Stop Woke Act’ with the ABA's 303(c) mandate. The 'Stop WOKE Act’ disrupts the balance that educators, particularly professors of color, must skillfully maintain when considering the incorporation of anti-racism principles into their teaching.

Assistant Professor of Law, Widener University Delaware School of Law. J.D. and Certificate for Public Policy, The Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, B.A. Hollins University (formerly Hollins College).