Ron DeSantis, the state’s flaming governor who is campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, has come under fire this week from politicians, educators and historians who called the state’s guidelines a sanitized version of history following an overhaul of Florida’s historical standards for African Americans.
For example, the standard said middle school students should be taught that “slaves acquired skills that could be applied for personal gain,” a depiction that drew widespread condemnation.
Vice President Kamala Harris has instructed staff to immediately plan a trip to Florida to respond, according to a White House official, in a sign of a conflict over education that could affect the 2024 presidential election.
“How can anyone suggest that there is any benefit in being exposed to this level of dehumanization in the midst of such atrocities?”
DeSantis issued the following statement prior to his speech: statement The Biden administration has mischaracterized the new standard, accusing it of being “obsessed with Florida.”
Florida’s new standards are in the midst of a national tug-of-war over how race and gender should be taught in schools. Local skirmishes have erupted over book bans, racism in classrooms and a debate over renaming a school in honor of a Confederate general.
DeSantis has made fighting the “awake” challenges in education a hallmark of the nation’s brand. He overhauled the New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college, and rejected the University Commission’s AP course on African-American Studies. And his administration updated state math and social studies textbooks to remove “banned topics” such as social-emotional learning, which helps foster positive thinking in students, and critical race theory, which examines the systemic role of racism in society.
Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Biden are both running candidates for the 2024 election, and both are quick to accuse the other of pushing propaganda on children.
The rewriting of Florida’s African-American history standards counters the 2022 law signed by DeSantis (known as the “Stop WOKE Act”) that prohibits teaching students about historical events that might offend them on the basis of their race, gender or national origin.
The new standard seems 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 the contribution of African Americans to the expansion westward.
Albert S. Broussard, an African-American research professor at Texas A&M University who helped write McGraw-Hill’s history textbook, said it’s important to teach positive history. “Black history is not just one long story of tragedy, sorrow and atrocities,” he said.
But he said some of Florida’s adjustments went too far, de-emphasizing the violence and inhumanity black Americans endured, and, as a result, were “just part of history.”
“This is the kind of sanitizer that students will pick up,” he said. “Students will ask questions and demand answers.”
The Florida Department of Education said the new standards are the result of a “rigorous process” and are “thorough and comprehensive.”
“They incorporate every element of African-American history: the good, the bad, the ugly,” said Alex Lanfranconi, director of public affairs at the department.
One of the standards at issue states that high school students should learn about “violence committed against or by African Americans” during early 20th-century race genocide, such as the Tulsa race massacre. In this massacre, a white mob destroyed a wealthy black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing as many as 300 people.
LaGarrett King, director of the K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education Center at the University of Buffalo, said the standard appears to understand that it teaches “both sides” of history by saying that violence was committed “by African Americans” as well as “against African Americans.”
But historically, “it’s not accurate,” he says.
Historians say that racial genocide in the early 1900s was generally led by white groups and often prevented black residents from voting.
In the 1920 Ocoee Massacre, white mobs enraged by black men’s attempts to vote burned down black houses and churches and killed an unknown number of black residents in a small Florida town.
Democratic state senator Geraldine Thompson, who pushed for requiring schools in Florida to teach about the genocide, said she had not been consulted in developing the new standard, despite her non-voting role on the school board’s African-American History Select Committee.
She said she would have objected to the standard as “biased” and “incomplete.” For example, she questioned why there wasn’t more emphasis on the history of Africans before colonization and enslavement.
“Our history didn’t start with slavery,” she said in an interview. “It starts with some of the world’s greatest civilizations.”
The Florida standards were developed by a 13-member “working group” with input from the African American History Task Force, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Two members of the working group, William Allen and Francis Presley Rice, issued a statement in response to criticism of one of the most critical standards that portray enslaved African Americans as personally benefiting from their skills.
“The purpose of this particular clarification of criteria is to show that some slaves have developed highly specialized occupations and benefited from them,” they said, citing blacksmithing, shoemaking and fishing as examples.
“Any attempt to make slaves merely victims of oppression fails to recognize their strength, courage, and resilience during difficult times in American history,” they said. “Florida students have a right to learn how slaves used their conditions to benefit themselves and their communities of African descent.”
Florida is one of about a dozen states that mandate African-American history education.
Other states with such obligations include South Carolina, Tennessee, New York and New Jersey.
State mandates go back decades, with Florida mandates passed in 1994, but were often enacted in response to requests from black residents and educators, Dr. King of the University of Buffalo said.
“Black people have a tradition of fighting for their history,” he said.
But as long as black history has been taught, there has been debate about which aspects should be emphasized, he said. King said that sometimes certain historical figures and storylines come out to be more flavorful to white audiences.
“There is black history,” he said. “But the question is always what black history do we teach?”
Zoran Kanno Youngs Report Contributed