TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Ron DeSantis scoffed when the NAACP issued a travel advisory this spring warning Black people to use “extreme care” if traveling to Florida.
The leading civil rights group argued that the state's loose gun laws and the Republican governor's “anti-woke” campaign to deny the existence of systemic racism created a culture of “open hostility towards African Americans and people of color."
Just three months later, DeSantis is leading his state through the aftermath of a racist attack that left three African Americans dead. Black leaders in Florida — and across the nation — say they’re outraged by his actions and rhetoric ahead of the shooting.
“Gov. DeSantis has created and pushed a narrative of division and hate that is anti-Black,” said Rev. Jeffrey Rumlin, pastor of The Dayspring Church in Jacksonville, where three Black people were gunned down at a Dollar General store over the weekend by a white man with a swastika emblazoned on his assault rifle.
Rumlin criticized DeSantis for not explicitly describing the killer as a racist at a Sunday vigil in Jacksonville. DeSantis was booed at the vigil, where he called the shooter “a major-league scumbag” and said, “We are not going to let people be targeted based on their race.”
The Florida governor, also responding this week to a hurricane bearing down on much of his state, has confronted multiple challenges on race since launching his presidential campaign. He has been criticized by Republican rivals on Florida's new education standards on slavery while losing ground against former President Donald Trump, the front-runner in the GOP primary.
Ever defiant, DeSantis' team rejected suggestions that he did not adequately condemn the weekend shooting and has more broadly ignored the concerns of the state's African American community. The Republican governor scored an overwhelming reelection last fall that included flipping the traditional Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County, which has a majority Latino population. He made modest gains among Black voters.
“This shooting was a terrible tragedy, and it is reprehensible that The Associated Press has decided to collect and amplify false talking points as ‘reporting’ on this horrific event," said DeSantis campaign spokesman Bryan Griffin. "Ron DeSantis has condemned these racially motivated murders repeatedly in the strongest language possible. … He will not tolerate racial hatred or violence in Florida, and we reject your politicization of this horrible event.”
The tragedy cast a shadow across the Republican presidential campaign this week as candidates faced uncomfortable questions about the party's increasing appeal among white supremacists and the GOP's fight against so-called “woke” policies on race and gender. While DeSantis has not mentioned his “war on woke” in recent days, cultural issues have been the centerpiece of his campaign.
Virtually all of the candidates have embraced a similar message aimed at appealing to the GOP's white conservative base by downplaying the existence of racism in America and restricting LGBTQ rights. To win the general election next fall, the Republican nominee will likely need to appeal to a much more diverse group of voters. But the primary fight won’t be decided for several months.
Sen. Tim Scott, one of three Black Republicans running for president, called on his party to speak out against the latest tragedy as he campaigned in his home state of South Carolina.
“I think we should all be standing up and saying that any act of violence against someone very purely because of the color of your skin is terrible," he told reporters. "We saw three African Americans die because of the color of their skin over the weekend. That’s devastating.”
He avoided answering directly when asked if the Republican Party has done enough to denounce white supremacist violence.
“The question is, have humans done enough to talk about racism and discrimination and the use of violence? And I think that’s the responsibility of every single American — the Republican Party, Democrat Party, no party affiliation," Scott said.
In a radio interview with conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley said there was no clear explanation for such violence.
“There’s a lot of hate online with social media. We’ve got a lot of mental health issues. And you combine that with the rhetoric that is happening in America of division and just being able to hide behind something on social media and getting angry, it causes for a bad cocktail," said Haley, who was serving as South Carolina's governor when a racist gunman attacked a Black church and killed nine people. “And when you get that, people die.”
Haley, whose parents immigrated to South Carolina from India, declared in her presidential announcement speech that America is not a racist nation.
Republicans have little political incentive to appeal to voters of color — in the primary phase of the presidential campaign, at least.
One-third of Americans (35%) say racism is “a very big problem” in the United States, according to a June poll from the Pew Research Center. Just 14% of Republicans see racism as a very significant issue compared with 55% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, one quarter of Republicans believe that being white hurts a person's ability to get ahead, according to an April study from the Pew Research Center. Republicans are about as likely to say that being Black helps (33%) a person’s ability to get ahead in the U.S. as to say it hurts (34%) their ability to advance.
African American leaders have decried what they call a pattern of “policy violence” against people of color imposed by the DeSantis administration that reached a low point after the recent release of its public school curriculum on Black history.
Florida State House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell argued DeSantis’ policies on race combine to embolden racists and extremists.
She pointed to the Republican governor's Stop-WOKE Act, which limits discussions of race in schools and businesses; his banning of diversity and equity inclusion at Florida colleges; and the newly approved Black history curriculum that suggests there were benefits to slavery. She also noted DeSantis’ loosening of gun laws, including a new law that allows people to carry guns without a permit or training.
“We’ve given warnings — don’t pass this legislation because it will only inflame tensions, don’t pass this bad bill because it will promote vigilantism, don’t do this because it will divide our communities,” Driskell said. “He has courted support from the far right. He plays footsies with it. This rhetoric was always going to lead to violence.”
Democratic Rep. Angie Nixon, who represents the district where the weekend murders took place, oscillated between angry shouts, tears and profanity as she condemned DeSantis in an interview.
“He refuses to use the word Black. He refuses to call that man a racist. He calls him a scumbag. No!" Nixon said. “He’s tiptoeing around the true issue because he’s worried that his poll numbers will drop with the base of voters that he has religiously went after.”
DeSantis derided the NAACP's travel advisory as a “political stunt” back in May when he launched his presidential campaign.
“Claiming that Florida is unsafe is a total farce,” DeSantis said in a conversation with Elon Musk. “I mean, are you kidding me? You look at cities around this country, they are awash in crime. In Florida, our crime rate is at a 50-year low."
On Monday, NAACP President Derrick Johnson said DeSantis deserves real blame for the weekend shooting.
“What Gov. DeSantis has done is created an atmosphere for such tragedies to take place,” Johnson said. “This is exactly why we issued the travel advisory.”
___ Peoples reported from New York. AP writers Linley Sanders in Washington; Meg Kinnard in Charleston, South Carolina; and Michelle L. Price in Indian Land, South Carolina, contributed to this report.