On Jan. 12, 2023, Florida Gov. and possible GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis extended his “war on woke,” when his administration rejected a proposed Advanced Placement African American Studies class from Florida high schools. The move was consistent with DeSantis’s proposed “Stop W.O.K.E Act” in 2022, which aims to eliminate certain content from educational curriculum and has been under partial injunction since November. And on Jan. 20, 2023, a U.S. District Court judge upheld DeSantis’s suspension of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren whom DeSantis claimed had prosecuted cases under “woke ideology.”
DeSantis is only the most prominent example of Republican lawmakers claiming to fight “woke ideology,” “wokeness,” or the “woke left,” and though occasionally pressed to provide definitions, politicians are strategically vague. Even with the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” that clearly targets content about America’s racist history and systems, the acronym simply stands for “Wrong to our Kids and Employees.” Nothing racial. Just as with all effective dog whistles, the racial implications must be subtle, or better yet, implied. The label should evoke demonized Black populations, but their literal sense broad enough and ambiguous enough to provide plausible deniability.
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As social scientists with expertise in the area of race and politics, we collected data on who actually identifies with the term “woke”? The patterns make it clear why the label has become the latest in a long line of Republican dog whistles.
In a nationally-representative survey of over 1,700 Americans fielded by YouGov in Oct. 2022, one of us (Samuel Perry) and a collaborator Joshua Grubbs asked Americans how well the term “woke” described them. Overall, 22% of Americans said “woke” described them either “very well” or “somewhat well.” If that sounds like a high percentage, it’s actually somewhat lower than the percentage found in a 2021 Harris poll (32%), suggesting Americans may be backing away from the label as it’s become a slur. Though it’s also slightly less than the percentage of our survey respondents who identified with the term “Christian nationalist” (25%).
When we break down who actually identifies with the term “woke” in the YouGov survey, it becomes clearer why the racial implications are unmistakable. Nearly 40% of Black Americans identify somewhat with the label, more than double the percentage of white Americans (19%). It’s also considerably more than the percentage of Hispanics (24%) or Asian Americans (19%). In fact, only 28% of Black Americans completely distanced themselves from the term, saying “woke” described them “not at all,” compared to clear majorities of white Americans (57%) and Asian Americans (54%).
But “woke” is also a term for Black Americans that transcends ideology and partisanship in a way it doesn’t for any other group. Over 40% of Black Americans in the YouGov survey identify with the term whether they are liberals or moderates. In fact, roughly 40% of Black Republicans and Independents identify somewhat with “woke.” This means the percentage of “woke” Black Republicans and Independents is higher than the percentage of white “Strong Democrats” (39%).
Statistically speaking, the broad demographic for whom the term “woke” most consistently applies is Black Americans. This should be unsurprising considering the term originates among the Black community to denote someone who has been awakened to the reality of systemic injustice. It also demonstrates that being “woke” is a fact of life for Black Americans as they process what W. E. B. Du Bois refers to as a “double consciousness”—the struggle to be Black and viewed as a full American. This is further supported by numerous polls and studies showing Black Americans are far more likely to be aware of the past and current injustices they face in housing, employment, policing, and health.
The disproportionate number of Black Americans who identify somewhat with the term “woke” would ostensibly make Republican “anti-woke” efforts transparently racist. But there is one group who is even more likely to identify with the term “woke” than the average Black American—whites who identify as “very liberal.” In the same YouGov survey, just over 50% of white “very liberal” Americans (representing 6% of the total population of white Americans) say “woke” describes them “very well” or “somewhat well.”
Though this group of whites is small, the relatively high percentage of “very liberal” whites who identify with “woke” provides the deniability that all effective dog whistles need: Policies that clearly target efforts to convey the history of racial injustice in schools under the guise of fighting “woke” education need not be anti-Black when the “woke” are perhaps even more the white far-left.
This is a common challenge when anti-racist language becomes mainstream. Critics point out that white liberals often lay claim to anti-racist concepts and identities without effectively working for anti-racist goals. As a result, the language becomes absorbed into white partisan conflicts, accomplishing little while also setting the stage for counter attacks with dog whistles. A recent study, for example, found the term “anti-racist” itself was more often embraced by white progressives than Blacks or Hispanics, and thus, right-wing mobilization against “anti-racist” concepts, books, or policies could just as easily be framed in mundane partisan, culture war terms in which Republicans oppose movements led by white liberals. This in turn makes the conflict intra-racial, instead of interracial.
This covert form of race-baiting has become a central plank in shaping American partisan politics. Moving away from the language of Strom Thurmand and George Wallace, who overtly rallied their supporters against threats to the racial hierarchy, Republican candidates in the post-Civil Rights era stoke fear and anger over this threat via coded language.
Whether it’s a term like “woke,” or more traditional labels like “welfare queen,” “buck,” “thug,” “terror,” “illegals,” “socialists,” or “unAmerican,” the efficacy of a racial dog whistle is not in the fact that nobody knows whom you’re clearly talking about, it’s the plausible deniability that allows you to respond: “Who’s talking about Black people? I’m just talking about leftists. You’re the one making it about race.”
Republicans have mastered the tactic. And if history is any indication, front-runners like DeSantis will continue their public crusade against the bogeyman of “woke,” the current code word for left-wing radicals who provide the convenient distraction from those whom anti-woke legislation really targets—Black Americans who demand justice.