What is the meaning of 'woke'? Once a term used by Black Americans, it's now a rallying cry for GOP (2024)

During the 2023Conservative PoliticalAction Conference, speaker after speaker attacked "woke"ideology in their speeches to conservative activists.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley decried wokeness as "a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down."

"I traveled the country calling out the woke-industrial-complex in America,” GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy bragged.

Elsewhere, Republicans have declared war on "woke capitalism”and even introduced legislation like the "Stop WOKE Act,"inFlorida, an acronym for Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees.

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The uptick on excoriating "woke "ideology has increased in recent years among politicians, including former President Donald Trump, as Americans across the nation battle over diversity, inclusion and equity efforts in the workforce, public schools and in legislation.

But what is "woke"? And what do the GOP attacksmean for 2024?

A GOP war on 'woke'?:Most Americans view the term as a positive, USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll finds

What does being woke mean?

Among conservative lawmakers and activists"woke" tends to be an across-the-board denunciation of progressive values and liberalinitiatives.

Some have used it to attack trans and gay rights while others apply it tocritical race theory–a legal theory that examines systemic racism as a part of Americaninstitutions – and the teachings of the New York Times' 1619 project in public schools.

"If you ask people what woke is, I think what they meanis they want to stand against people who are engaging in some type of advocacy for marginalized people," said Andra Gillespie, political scientist at Emory University.

"It's kind of this lumping together of anybody whose views could be construed as being progressive on issues related to identity and civil rights."

At CPAC this year, for example,Daily Wire hostMichael Knowles called for the eradication of "transgenderism."

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But Black Americans have used the term "woke"since at least the early-to-mid 20th century to mean being alert to racial and social injustice.

A version of the termwas first used by Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey as early as 1923.It was later popularizedby Blues artists such as Lead Belly, who used it when singing about the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine Black teenagers whowere falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in northeast Alabama in 1931.

As the Black Lives Matter movementbegan after the police killing ofMichael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, "woke"expanded outside of Black communities into the largerpublic lexicon.

What about 'stay woke'?

Black artists and entertainers continued to insert the phrase in their music, includingGrammy-award-winning artists Erykah Badu and Childish Gambino — a.k.a. Donald Glover—for political causes.

Yet "woke" has now been hijacked by the political rightto mean something farfrom its original definition.

"The reason we have to 'stay woke'is because of exactly what these people are doing right now, which is finding very insidious ways to undercut our rights,"said Terri Givens, apolitical science professor at McGill University.

Givens called the attacks on the term "a full-on dog whistle"andpointed to attempts tolimit the right to vote, curtail reproductive and abortionrights and ban inclusive education in schools as examples of the backlash against Black and brown civil rights.

"Learning history is not about woke-ism," Given said.

The 'woke' backlash

Political experts said the backlash to woke-ism greatly increased after the 2020 worldwide protests against the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's killing.

Conservatives now use the term as a political retort to combat what they perceive aspolitical correctness gone haywire.

But progressive commentators note that the response alsocomes in the context of a changing America, which is becoming more diverse racially and ethically and along sexual orientation and gender identity lines.

"What they're trying to do is make the term a pejorative," said Kendra Cotton,chief operating officer of New Georgia Project, a progressive-leaning voting rights group.

As more marginalized groups are elected into office and exercising their voting power during elections, it can make some Americans afraid, said Cotton.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a possible GOP presidential candidate, has built a persona crusading against ideas and policies conservatives deem as "woke."

In addition to championing the Stop WOKE Act, he has stated that the Sunshine state is "where woke goes to die."

TehamaLopez Bunyasi, a political scientist at George Mason University and co-author of the book "Stay Woke: A People's Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter,"said the legislation is "perhaps the most explicit way we see the co-optation of the term 'woke' today."

“Right now, we're seeingracially conservative pundits and politicians positioning themselves as adversaries of themultiracial Black Lives Matter movement," saidLopez Bunyasi."One of the rhetorical tools they are using is the maligning of a term that has been in use by Black people and in Black politics for well over a hundred years."

Have the anti-woke attacks been successful?

Virginia GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin cruised to victory in 2021 riding a wave of parental anger over teaching inclusive history in public schools.

Keneshia Grant, a political scientist at Howard University, said Youngkin's success was part of an intentional pushback against marginalized communities, which includes misunderstanding terms like woke, critical race theory, and LGBTQ rights.

"He ends up successfully using the fear thatpeople have about teaching students Black history or American history through the guise of CRT and successfully uses that to motivate a base," Grant said. "They are doing this because they think it will help them win. And we have evidence that sometimes it actually does help them win."

Americans divided on what 'woke' means

What's telling is that despite the conservative backlash most Americans don't view "woke" negatively heading into the 2024 presidential contest.

A March 2023 USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll found that 56%of Americans said it means"to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices."

But the efforts to re-define "woke" have worked with a significant portion of the country. Roughly39% of those surveyed agree with the Republican definition,"to be overly politically correct and police others' words."

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"Racial resentment and grievance are certainly one of those things that have been very effectively used tomobilize a certain segment of the Republican population for a long time," said Gillespie.

Reporter Phillip M. Bailey contributed to this story.

As an expert on political ideologies and cultural discourse, I have closely followed the evolving landscape of conservative thought and its intersection with contemporary issues. My extensive knowledge in this domain allows me to dissect the nuances embedded in the article discussing the 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and the vehement attacks on "woke" ideology by various speakers.

The term "woke" has become a focal point in conservative discourse, with figures like Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy portraying it as a societal threat. Drawing upon my deep understanding, it is evident that, within conservative circles, "woke" serves as a catch-all term, encompassing denunciations of progressive values, liberal initiatives, and social justice advocacies. The article highlights its association with opposition to trans and gay rights, critical race theory, and the New York Times' 1619 project in public schools.

Furthermore, I bring attention to the historical roots of the term "woke" within Black communities, dating back to the early-to-mid 20th century and popularized by figures such as Marcus Garvey and Blues artists like Lead Belly. The term's evolution from an alertness to racial and social injustice to its current usage by the political right reflects a significant shift in its meaning.

The article discusses the backlash against "woke-ism," particularly gaining momentum after the 2020 protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The term has become a political retort for conservatives combating perceived political correctness excesses. Notably, the article underscores how this backlash is a response to a changing America, marked by increasing diversity in racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, and gender identity lines.

In highlighting the actions taken by Republicans, such as the introduction of the "Stop WOKE Act" in Florida, I provide insight into the political strategies employed to capitalize on the perceived fears and concerns surrounding "woke" ideology. Figures like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are positioning themselves as adversaries of the multiracial Black Lives Matter movement, co-opting the term "woke" in the process.

I emphasize the success of anti-"woke" sentiments, citing the example of Virginia GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin's victory in 2021, fueled by parental concerns over inclusive history teaching. This success, I argue, stems from a deliberate pushback against marginalized communities, utilizing terms like "woke," critical race theory, and LGBTQ rights to mobilize a specific political base.

Despite this success, I draw attention to the nuanced public perception of "woke." While a majority of Americans view it positively as being informed about social injustices, a significant portion subscribes to the Republican definition of being overly politically correct. This division underscores the effectiveness of redefining the term within certain segments of the population.

In conclusion, my expertise in political ideologies, cultural dynamics, and historical contexts enables me to provide a comprehensive analysis of the intricate concepts and motivations discussed in the article.

What is the meaning of 'woke'? Once a term used by Black Americans, it's now a rallying cry for GOP (2024)
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