DeSantis faces a wave of criticism over Florida’s new standards for black history

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, Republican presidential candidate, speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines, Iowa on July 14, 2023. (Kathryn Gamble/The New York Times)

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, Republican presidential candidate, speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines, Iowa on July 14, 2023. (Kathryn Gamble/The New York Times)

After an overhaul of Florida’s African American history standards, Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state’s governor campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, faces a barrage of criticism this week from politicians, educators and historians, who have called the state’s guidelines a sanitized version of history.

For example, the standards state that college students should be told that “slaves have developed skills which, in some cases, could be applied to their personal advantage” – a portrayal that has drawn numerous rebukes.

In a sign of the divisive battle over education that could infect the 2024 presidential race, Vice President Kamala Harris has ordered her staff to immediately plan a trip to Florida to respond, according to a White House official.

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“How is it that anyone could suggest that in the midst of these atrocities there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanization?” Harris, the first African American and first Asian American to serve as vice president, said in a speech in Jacksonville on Friday afternoon.

Ahead of his speech, DeSantis released a statement accusing the Biden administration of distorting new standards and being “Florida obsessed.”

Florida’s new standards land amid a national tussle over how race and gender should be taught in schools. There were local skirmishes over banning books and what can be said about race in the classroom and debates over renaming schools that honored Confederate generals.

DeSantis has made fighting a “woke” agenda in education an integral part of his national brand. He revamped the New College of Florida, a public liberal arts university, and rejected the College Board’s Advanced Placement Course in African American Studies. And his administration updated state math and social studies textbooks, stripping them of “banned subjects” like social-emotional learning, which helps students develop a positive mindset, and critical race theory, which examines the systemic role of racism in society.

With DeSantis and President Joe Biden now both official candidates for the 2024 campaign, each side was quick to accuse the other of pushing propaganda about children.

Florida’s rewrite of its African-American history standards comes in response to a 2022 law DeSantis signed, known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” that prohibits teaching that might make students feel uncomfortable about a historical event because of their race, gender, or national origin.

The new standards appear to highlight the positive contributions of black Americans throughout history, from Booker T. Washington to Zora Neale Hurston.

Fifth graders are expected to learn about the “resilience” of African Americans, including how former slaves helped others escape as part of the Underground Railroad, and about the contributions of African Americans during westward expansion.

Teaching positive history is important, said Albert S. Broussard, a professor of African American studies at Texas A&M University, who has helped write history textbooks for McGraw Hill. “Black history is not just one long story of tragedy, sadness and brutality,” he said.

But he considered some of Florida’s tweaks went too far, downplaying the violence and inhumanity endured by black Americans and only resulting in a “partial story.”

“That’s the kind of disinfection that students are going to acquire,” he said. “Students are going to ask questions, and they’re going to demand answers.”

The Florida Department of Education said the new standards were the result of a “rigorous process”, describing them as “thorough and comprehensive”.

“They incorporate all the components of African-American history: the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Alex Lanfranconi, director of communications for the department.

A disputed standard states that high school students should learn about “the violence perpetrated against and by African Americans” during early 20th century racial massacres, such as the Tulsa Race Massacre. In this massacre, white rioters destroyed a prosperous black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and up to 300 people were killed.

By saying the violence was perpetrated not only against but “by African Americans,” the standards seem to capture teaching “from both sides” of history, said LaGarrett King, director of the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education at the University at Buffalo.

But historically, he says, “that’s just not accurate.”

By and large, historians say, racial massacres in the early 1900s were carried out by white groups, often to keep black residents from voting.

Such was the case during the Ocoee Massacre in 1920, in which a white mob, enraged by a black man’s attempt to vote, burned down black homes and churches and killed an unknown number of black residents in a small Florida town.

Geraldine Thompson, a Democratic state senator who pushed to demand that Florida schools teach about the massacre, said she was not consulted in the development of the new standards, despite having a non-voting role on the Education Commissioner’s African American History Task Force.

She said she would have objected to the standards as “mandatory” and “incomplete”. She wondered, for example, why more importance was not given to the history of African peoples before colonization and enslavement.

“Our story doesn’t start with slavery,” she said in an interview. “It starts with some of the greatest civilizations in the world.”

The Florida standards were created by a 13-member “task force,” with input from the African American History Task Force, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Two members of the task force, William Allen and Frances Presley Rice, issued a statement responding to criticism of one of the most dissected standards, portraying enslaved African Americans as personally benefiting from their skills.

“The intent of this particular reference clarification is to show that some slaves developed highly skilled trades from which they benefited,” they said, citing blacksmithing, shoemaking and fishing as examples.

“Any attempt to reduce slaves to mere victims of oppression fails to recognize their strength, courage and resilience during a difficult time in American history,” they said. “Florida students deserve to learn how slaves took advantage of every circumstance they found themselves in for their own benefit and that of the African-descended community.”

Florida is one of a dozen states that require teaching African American history.

Other states with such mandates include South Carolina, Tennessee, New York and New Jersey.

State mandates date back decades — Florida’s was passed in 1994 — and often responded to requests from black residents and educators, King said at the University at Buffalo.

“There is a legacy of black people fighting for their history,” he said.

Ever since black history has been taught, King said, there has been a debate about which aspects to emphasize. At times, certain historical figures and storylines came across as more palatable to white audiences, King said.

“There is a black history,” he said. “But the question has always been, well, what black history are we going to teach?”

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