Analysis | Team DeSantis’s fury at mild Republican criticism distills his politics
There is not only one ongoing crisis surrounding Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. There are the layoffs, the comments about appointing a notorious anti-vaccine activist to run the Food and Drug Administration, the stagnant poll numbers since announcing his bid two months ago.
But, even in that maelstrom, there’s a dispute that stands out. The Florida Education Department announcement of a new social studies curriculum earned quick criticism, given its inclusion of the suggestion that those enslaved in the United States might have benefited from the skills they learned in enslavement. After days of scuffling between DeSantis’s allies and his critics — and no small number of historians — DeSantis’s allies turned their anger toward an unexpected target: conservative Rep. Byron Donalds, a member of Florida’s congressional delegation.
Before we get to that, it’s worth establishing what brought us to this point.
As he prepared to run for president, DeSantis embraced the sorts of issues that were guaranteed to get him attention in the conservative media. This was indirectly why he was governor after all; his Fox News appearances led to his endorsement by Donald Trump in 2018.
That included becoming the face of the right’s fight against “woke” culture, a nebulous term even in DeSantis’s usage. The governor’s efforts to combat this putative threat included eliminating discussions of race that seemed even loosely proximate to the discussions of systemic racism or which threatened to cast any shadow at all on the American flag. He championed and then signed into law the “S.T.O.P. Woke Act,” which, among other things, led to the Education Department revising its social studies curriculum. And, then, to the delineation that students learn “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
Earlier this year, you will recall, Florida rejected a proposed Advanced Placement program looking at Black history. It was a move that was in part driven by a desire to elevate DeSantis’s objections to “woke” instruction in the eyes of Republican primary voters. The College Board, which develops AP curriculums, later published a revised version for which DeSantis’s allies were eager to claim credit. (The College Board denied that.)
DeSantis’s team, though, has suddenly found utility in that revised AP standard. After all, as DeSantis’s press secretary was eager to highlight on social media, the College Board’s outline itself mentions the skills learned by the enslaved. (This was not in the draft version created last year.)
But notice the difference:
AP: “In addition to agricultural work, enslaved people learned specialized trades and worked as painters, carpenters, tailors, musicians, and healers in the North and South. Once free, [African] Americans used these skills to provide for themselves and others.”
Florida: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
First, there’s the divergence between “slaves” and “enslaved people.” The latter term has seen more use in recent years as a way to emphasize the humanity of those forced to labor against their will. The use of “slave” in the Florida may be incidental but, as you’ll see in a moment, it probably wasn’t.
More important is how skill acquisition is framed. In Florida’s articulation, these skills were benefits, a line item for their résumés. Nor is there a mention that this would occur only once freed — a status which most of those who were enslaved never enjoyed.
To develop this new curriculum, the state Education Department turned to its existing task force on African American history. But in May, after the task force had shrunk to four members, the head of the department appointed six new members, all conservatives and/or allies of DeSantis.
At the first meeting of the newly reconstituted task force “[t]hings got heated,” Jenna Bourne and Libby Hendren reported for the Jacksonville television station WTSP. “The task force’s first vote since the membership shake-up was a 6-4 split, precisely divided between new members and old,” Bourne and Hendren reported.
One of the new appointees was Frances Presley Rice, a documentary filmmaker and military veteran whose name appeared on a statement defending the new curriculum that was shared by the DeSantis administration this week. That statement identified a number of people who it asserted had gained skills while enslaved. Many of those listed, though, had never actually been enslaved.
This highlights the other difference between the AP’s product and Florida’s. There is no reason to assume that the College Board’s curriculum was informed by partisan politics. There is good reason to assume that Florida’s was — and, therefore, that the phrasing in the controversial statement was intentional.
For a long time now, we’ve seen what happens when DeSantis comes under attack. He often tries to stay somewhat removed from the fray, as when he responded to a question about the curriculum by first saying, “well, I didn’t do it and I wasn’t involved in it.” Then his communications team — people like his notorious aide Christina Pushaw — go to the social-media mattresses. His campaign has been criticized for being too closely attuned to social-media feuds, but this does not seem to have influenced his team’s approach.
“The new African-American standards in FL are good, robust, & accurate,” Donalds wrote in a tweet on Wednesday. “That being said, the attempt to feature the personal benefits of slavery is wrong & needs to be adjusted. That obviously wasn’t the goal & I have faith that FLDOE will correct this.”
To which Pushaw replied: “Did Kamala Harris write this tweet?”
See, Vice President Harris was one of the early voices criticizing the Florida standard, as she did on Tuesday. So because Donalds offered even slight criticism — and, certainly, because he has endorsed Donald Trump — he was deemed equivalent to the Democratic vice president.
Other members of DeSantis’s team piledon, including by pointing to the College Board standard. That’s how it often works for the governor’s communications team, a dash of gaslighting and a conflagration of anger.
Donalds — obviously himself a politician — expressed amazement at the response.
“What’s crazy to me is I expressed support for the vast majority of the new African American history standards and happened to oppose one sentence that seemed to dignify the skills gained by slaves as a result of their enslavement,” he said. He said that those who were attacking him were “disingenuous” and “desperately attempting to score political points.”