After a standard overhaul of Florida’s African-American history, Governor Ron DeSantis, the fiery state governor battling for the Republican presidential nomination, is facing 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 middle school students should be educated that « slaves developed skills which, in some cases, could be applied to their personal advantage » – a portrayal that has drawn widespread rebuke.
In a sign of the divisive education battle 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.
« How is it that anyone could suggest that amidst these atrocities there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanization? » Ms. Harris, the first African American and first Asian American to serve as vice president, said in a speech in Jacksonville on Friday afternoon.
Before his speech, Mr. DeSantis released a declaration accusing the Biden administration of mischaracterizing the new standards and of being « obsessed with Florida. »
Florida’s new standards find themselves in the midst of a national tug-of-war over how race and gender should be taught in schools. There were local skirmishes over book bans, what can you say about race in classrooms, and debates over renaming schools that honored Confederate generals.
Mr. DeSantis has made wrestling an « awakened » agenda in education a distinctive part of his national brand. He reviewed New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college, and rejected the College Board’s AP course on African-American studies. And his administration has updated state textbooks in mathematics and social studies, deleting them for « forbidden topics« such as social-emotional learning, which helps students develop positive mindsets, and critical race theory, which examines the systemic role of racism in society.
With Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Biden now both official candidates in the 2024 campaign, each side has quickly accused the other of pushing propaganda around children.
Florida’s rewrite of its African American history standards comes in response to a 2022 law signed by Mr. DeSantis, known as « Stop WOKE Act”, which prohibits instruction that could cause students to feel uneasy about a historical event because of their race, gender or national origin.
THE new standards they seem to underscore 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 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 helped write history books for McGraw Hill. « Black history is not just a long story of tragedy and sadness and brutality, » he said.
But he saw some of the Florida adjustments go too far, de-emphasizing the violence and inhumanity suffered by black Americans and resulting in only a « partial story. »
« It’s the kind of sanitation that students will pick up, » he said. « Students will ask questions and demand answers. »
Florida’s 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, the department’s director of communications.
A disputed standard states that high school students should know about « the violence perpetrated against and by African Americans » during early 20th-century racial massacres, such as the Tulsa race massacre. In that massacre, white rioters destroyed a prosperous black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and up to 300 people were killed.
By saying that the violence was perpetrated not just against but « by African Americans, » the standards seem to grasp teaching « 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 said, « it’s just not accurate. »
In general, historians say, racial massacres during the early 1900s were led by white gangs, often to keep black residents from voting.
So it was in Ocoee Massacre of 1920in which a white mob, angered by a black man’s attempted vote, razed 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 require Florida schools to teach about slaughter, said she was not consulted in the shaping of the new standards, although she holds a non-voting role on the Education Commissioner’s African American History Task Force.
He said he would object to standards as « skewed » and « incomplete ». He asked, for example, why there hasn’t been more emphasis on the history of the African people before colonization and slavery.
« Our story doesn’t start with slavery, » he said in an interview. « Start with some of the greatest civilizations in the world. »
The Florida standards were created 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 Frances Presley Rice, released a statement in response to criticism of one of the most dissected standards, depicting enslaved African Americans personally benefiting from their abilities.
“The intent of this particular background clarification is to show that some slaves developed highly specialized trades that they benefited from,” they said, citing blacksmithing, shoemaking and fishing as examples.
« Any attempt to reduce slaves to 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 the circumstances in which they found themselves to benefit themselves and the African-descended community. »
Florida is one of about a dozen states that require the teaching of 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 have often come in response to requests from Black residents and educators, said Dr. King, of the University at Buffalo.
« There’s a legacy of people of color fighting for their history, » she said.
But as long as black history has been taught, he said, there has been debate about which aspects to emphasize. At times, certain historical figures and storylines have emerged as more appealing to white audiences, Dr. King said.
« There’s black history, » he said. « But the question has always been, well, what black history are we going to teach? »
Zolan Kanno-Young contributed report