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

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During the 2023 Conservative Political Action 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," in Florida, 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 attacks mean for 2024?

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What does being woke mean?

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

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

"If you ask people what woke is, I think what they mean is 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 host Michael 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 term was first used by Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey as early as 1923. It was later popularized by Blues artists such as Lead Belly, who used it when singing about the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine Black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in northeast Alabama in 1931.

As the Black Lives Matter movement began after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, "woke" expanded outside of Black communities into the larger public lexicon.

What about 'stay woke'?

Black artists and entertainers continued to insert the phrase in their music, including Grammy-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 right to mean something far from 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, a political science professor at McGill University.

Givens called the attacks on the term "a full-on dog whistle" and pointed to attempts to limit the right to vote, curtail reproductive and abortion rights 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 as political correctness gone haywire.

But progressive commentators note that the response also comes 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."

Tehama Lopez 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 seeing racially conservative pundits and politicians positioning themselves as adversaries of the multiracial Black Lives Matter movement," said Lopez 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 that people 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. Roughly 39% 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 to mobilize a certain segment of the Republican population for a long time," said Gillespie.

Reporter Phillip M. Bailey contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What does 'woke' mean? Republicans bashing 'wokeness' ahead of 2024