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What does 'woke' mean and why are some conservatives using it?

The definition of "woke" changes depending on who you ask.

January 23, 2024, 6:05 PM

The definition of "woke" changes depending on who you ask.

The term has recently been used by some conservatives as an umbrella term for progressive values, often using it with negative connotations.

However, the term was originally coined by progressive Black Americans and used in racial justice movements in the early to mid-1900s. To be "woke" politically in the Black community means that someone is informed, educated and conscious of social injustice and racial inequality, Merriam-Webster Dictionary states.

A historical recording of the protest song "Scottsboro Boys" by Lead Belly in the 1930s -- as captured by Smithsonian Folkways, the non-profit record label of the National Museum -- is often cited as one of the earliest uses of the term. The Scottsboro Boys were nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a Southern Railroad freight train in northern Alabama in 1931 in a case that lasted decades, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In the recording of the Lead Belly song several years after the incident, "stay woke" urged Black Americans to be aware of the potential for racist violence in the South.

The term, in one of its contemporary meanings, began to gain more popularity at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The Ferguson, Missouri, protests that year spotlighted the social injustices and police brutality faced by the Black community following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.

PHOTO: In this May 24, 2021, file photo, activist Maurice Mitchell speaks to those attending a demonstration by various activists in Washington, D.C.
In this May 24, 2021, file photo, activist Maurice Mitchell speaks to those attending a demonstration by various activists who are calling on President Joe Biden to not compromise on election promises regarding climate change, health care, jobs and social justice, in Washington, D.C.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Green New Deal, FILE

Brown's death was shortly followed by the fatal police encounters of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others -- which continued the growing popularity of the phrase and its use in protest and activist circles for many years to come, according to research from Ohio State University on the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The term has since been co-opted by some Republicans as a pejorative term since last year's midterm elections to signify the identity-based social justice issues that some Democrats and progressives push for, representatives from the Democratic Governors Association and Working Families Party tell ABC News.

"Woke" has been used by several presidential GOP candidates including former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy who penned a book "Woke Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam."

Woke is defined by the DeSantis administration as "the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them," according to DeSantis' general counsel, as reported by The Washington Post.

"We reject woke ideology," DeSantis said in his election 2022 night speech. "We will never ever surrender to the woke agenda. People have come here because of our policies."

The pressure against "woke"-ness in Florida has already led to restrictions of race-related content in education, including the rejection of an AP African American history course in state high schools and vows from college presidents against including some race-related content that covers "intersectionality, or the idea that systems of oppression should be the primary lens through which teaching and learning are analyzed and/or improved upon."

For example, DeSantis has implemented policies in schools that restrict the topics of race, oppression, gender and sexual orientation in the classroom through the Parental Rights in Education Law and the "Stop WOKE" Act. He argues these laws give parents more say in what their kids learn in schools. His administration also banned spending on diversity, equity and inclusion programs (DEI) from public college campuses.

Across the country, hundreds of conservative-led legislative efforts have restricted programs, classes and trainings that touch on race, diversity and equity in recent months.

Identity has been at the heart of the so-called culture wars being seen across the country, as Democrats and Republicans go head-to-head on issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, racial education in schools, and more.

PHOTO: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a victory speech during his election night watch party at the Tampa Convention Center on Nov. 8, 2022, in Tampa, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives a victory speech after defeating Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rep. Charlie Crist during his election night watch party at the Tampa Convention Center on Nov. 8, 2022, in Tampa, Fla.
Octavio Jones/Getty Images

Some argue that conservatives are depicting "woke"-ness, or being educated on social injustice, as a bad thing. Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party and the Social Movement Strategist with Movement 4 Black Lives, called the use of "woke" in that context a racial "dog whistle."

"Because 'woke' is associated with Black people, it's been a useful club for those who want to beat those seeking justice over the head with white grievance politics to win elections without deploying explicitly racist terms," said Mitchell.

David Turner, the communications director of the Democratic Governors Association, said Republicans' use of the term can make them appear as "bullies."

"Republicans, time and again, have overstepped where they think the average voter is and where most Americans are on mainstream issues," Turner said. "This also applies to their hyper-focus on niche cultural war issues."

The Republican National Committee, Republican Governor Association and DeSantis' office did not respond to ABC News' requests for comment.