As Florida history standards face pushback, DeSantis isn’t helping

As 2023 got underway, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration struggled with a controversy involving race, history, and education. Florida’s Department of Education had just banned schools from teaching an Advanced Placement course in African American studies, and as my MSNBC colleague Ja’han Jones explained in January, the governor’s defense fell far short.

Six months later, those developments look like an indicator of where the state was headed. NBC News reported late last week:

Florida’s public schools will now teach students that some Black people benefited from slavery because it taught them useful skills, part of new African American history standards approved Wednesday that were blasted by a state teachers’ union as a “step backward.”

To be sure, there’s one line from the Florida State Board of Education’s new standards that’s generating the most attention, and for good reason: According to the new standards, students are supposed to learn that slaves “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

It’s rooted in the idea that somehow that Florida’s young people should know that there might’ve been some upsides to being enslaved. This has faced fierce pushback, and for good reason.

But the larger controversy is about more than one line from a 216-page document. Kevin Kruse, a history professor at Princeton, wrote an analysis, highlighting several parts in which the standards reflected “the clumsy influence of partisan politics.” For example, conservative and Republican figures from history are elevated in the document, which also referenced a civil rights law that doesn’t exist.

Kevin Drum added in a related analysis, “In the high school section, instruction for the antebellum period includes 28 separate standards, of which more than a third (10 of 28) are related to abolition and other efforts to restrain slavery. Only two — if I’m counting generously — have anything to say about the conditions of slavery. Only one is about conditions in America itself, and it’s deliberately phrased to make it seem like Southern plantations were not so bad, comparatively speaking.”

For his part, the governor’s initial line was that he “wasn’t involved” in the creation of the standards. “I didn’t do it and I wasn’t involved in it,” DeSantis argued.

This attempt at avoiding responsibility might’ve been more persuasive if the Florida Republican hadn’t appointed the board members who wrote and approved the controversial standards.

But just as notable was DeSantis’ other line to reporters on Friday: In reference to his state’s new standards, the struggling presidential candidate said, “They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.”

In other words, as DeSantis sees it, the most controversial line in the Florida State Board of Education’s new standards is entirely defensible, and slavery indirectly benefited “some of the folks” who were bought, sold, and treated as property.

Let’s also note for context that DeSantis not only majored in history at Yale, he also worked as a history teacher. The far-right candidate, in other words, really ought to know better.

In case this weren’t quite enough, after Vice President Kamala Harris denounced the new state standards in no uncertain terms —  “They want to replace history with lies,” she said in remarks delivered in Jacksonville — DeSantis thought it’d be a good idea to respond to her by accusing the vice president of trying to “chirp” and “demagogue.”

If the governor thinks these responses are helping, or making himself or Florida look better, he’s mistaken.

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