The NAACP issued a formal travel advisory for the state of Florida over the weekend, warning visitors that the state has become “openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals” under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ leadership.
Some of the group’s top leaders call the move a direct rebuke to DeSantis’ frequent attacks on the most marginalized groups, which they see as a clear indication of what he would continue to do if he were elected president. DeSantis is expected to enter the 2024 race this week.
“The hope is that the rest of the United States will see the pain that Gov. DeSantis is inflicting upon African American people in the state of Florida,” Yvette Lewis, the NAACP Hillsborough County Branch president, told Yahoo News. “This is how he looks at us and anyone who continues to follow this man and doesn’t say anything stands with him.”
The advisory put forth by the NAACP on Saturday joins the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Latino civil rights organization, who issued a travel warning last Wednesday, and Equality Florida, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, who issued one last month.
“Before traveling to Florida, please understand that the state of Florida devalues and marginalizes the contributions of, and the challenges faced by African Americans and other communities of color,” a statement released by the African American civil rights organization read in part.
The alert calls out DeSantis’ “aggressive” attempts to erase Black history and to restrict diversity programs in Florida schools, highlighting controversial policies that, the group says, are the antithesis to democracy.
“Once again, hate-inspired state leaders have chosen to put politics over people,” Leon Russell, chair of the NAACP Board of Directors, said. “Governor Ron DeSantis and the state of Florida have engaged in a blatant war against principles of diversity and inclusion and rejected our shared identities to appeal to a dangerous, extremist minority.”
Florida is home to more than 22 million people, 17% of whom are African American, according to the latest Census data.
Lewis, who leads the largest chapter in the state, first presented the idea of an advisory to the NAACP Florida State Conference in late March after feeling as though all other options had been exhausted. She says that nearly every instance of perceived progress under DeSantis is met with blatant contradictions for Black people in the state.
“[DeSantis] says parents can choose whether their child can be vaccinated and what books they read, but he ridicules the vaccine and bans books,” she said. “We cannot even teach the truth about African American history in the state of Florida.”
The governor has openly mocked the notion that any kind of travel advisory would be effective, calling it a “joke” during a news conference the day after the NAACP state conference in March.
Doubling down on his push to stifle diversity efforts, last Monday, DeSantis signed legislation that prohibits colleges from spending public funds on diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Months prior to that he signed into law the Stop WOKE Act, which restricts how workplaces and schools can discuss race, and blocked an Advanced Placement African American Studies course in the state’s public schools, claiming it lacked “educational value.”
DeSantis’s deputy press secretary, Jeremy Redfern, told Yahoo News on Monday that the advisory is “nothing more than a stunt.”
“As Governor DeSantis announced last week, Florida is seeing record-breaking tourism,” Redfern said in an email.
Travel advisory precedent
This is just the second time a statewide advisory has been put forth by the NAACP.
The first was in 2017, when the organization issued a travel advisory for Missouri to warn Black visitors that their civil rights could be violated if they entered the state. This move came after multiple incidents, including a Black man dying while being held in a Missouri jail and the passing of S.B. 43, which made it harder for employees to prove unlawful discrimination based on race or gender.
The NAACP also cited a number of incidents of discrimination toward young African American men and women on college campuses that went unaddressed. This all came just three years after the fatal police shooting in Ferguson of 18-year-old Michael Brown, whose killing sparked public outcry and became the catalyst of many present-day protest movements.
This latest advisory for Florida is seen as one that could greatly impact the state’s tourism, one of its largest industries. Last year alone nearly 140 million tourists visited Florida, the most in state history, according to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism site. Additionally, tourism supports 1.7 million full-time and part-time jobs, and visitors spent $102 billion in Florida in 2021.
Melba Pearson, a Miami-based civil rights and criminal law attorney specializing in policy, sees the advisory as a definitive way to impact a state where it hurts most – its pockets.
“While it is unfortunate we and other groups had to take this step, it is critical for people considering travel to Florida to know what agenda they are supporting with their dollars,” Pearson told Yahoo News in an email.
As the legal redress chair for the NAACP South Dade Branch, Pearson said it’s the organization’s responsibility to warn Black residents and visitors that Florida is no longer a safe or welcoming place.
“It is our hope that travelers educate themselves on what is happening, and if they do come to Florida, join us in raising their voices against these troubling developments impacting our Black, LGBTQ+ and immigrant communities.”
Mixed reaction to advisory
News of the advisory has divided parts of the state, with some who see the need for immediate action and others who see it as a ploy.
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., called the advisory “really stupid.”
“I don’t even know what the NAACP is talking about,” Donalds, who is Black, said on “Fox and Friends” on Monday. “This is silly, and it’s dumb. It’s political. It makes no sense.”
Black-owned restaurants and businesses have also shared concerns about what the advisory could mean for their businesses that depend on tourism.
Shannea Akins, owner of Nikki’s Place Southern Cuisine in Orlando, said that despite having built a strong reputation for almost two and a half decades, she feels like any kind of advisory would be devastating to her business.
“It would be very, very detrimental to us because everybody who comes from out of town, they really do support us in a way that some of our locals can’t support all the time,” she told WESH, an NBC affiliate in Orlando, shortly after the advisory was first recommended.
For Lewis, the potential sacrifice for businesses in the short term is worth the long-term gains, which, she says, impacts everyone.
“We are citizens of the United States and we have rights, but because of DeSantis’ insecurities in his life, he took it upon himself to condemn certain people,” she said. “Ultimately, this is an injustice to all of us.”
Cover thumbnail: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images, Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images