Transcript: “Capehart” with Paul Ortiz, Professor of History & Director, Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, University of Florida

MR. CAPEHART: Good morning, and welcome to the “Capehart” podcast on Washington Post Live. I am Jonathan Capehart, associate editor at The Washington Post.

The state of Florida is at the eye of the storm in the ongoing discussions and debates about how Black history should be taught in public schools. Lessons deemed too woke are under fire, while critics are calling the new teaching standards a “step backward.” Joining me now to share how these curriculum changes could impact students and teachers, you see him there, University of Florida History Professor Paul Ortiz. He’s here to share, as I said, how this is all going to impact students and everyone else. Professor Ortiz, welcome to “Capehart” on Washington Post Live.

DR. ORTIZ: Thank you so much for having me, Jonathan. I really appreciate being here.

MR. CAPEHART: Sure. So the new guidelines in Florida to teach Black history are 216 pages of academic standards created by a group of 13, quote/unquote, “education stakeholders.” What prompted all this?

DR. ORTIZ: Jonathan, these new standards are designed to align with Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, HB 7. The irony here, of course, is that, as many of your viewers undoubtedly know, we have been able to get a federal court injunction against the Stop WOKE Act, HB 7, and so Governor DeSantis, who has consistently targeted African American history, ironically, there’s an injunction against the very law that he’s trying to get African American history standards. And please note, again, it’s African American history that he’s picking on, and so that’s kind of the backdrop behind the creation of these history standards.

MR. CAPEHART: I’m going to skip way ahead, because I was going to get to the Stop WOKE Act and the injunction behind it so far. Its application in colleges has been halted by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. That was done earlier this year. Is there an alternative curriculum that could be offered if the law is allowed to be implemented?

DR. ORTIZ: Well, that’s a great question, Jonathan. The alternative curriculum, I guess, would be the curriculum that we were already using in African American K-20 public education. When I teach African American history, I don’t call Governor Ron DeSantis to ask him for his insights because he’s not a historian. I look at what the top scholars in African American history have been writing. I look at the state of the scholarship. There are statewide and national and even international organizations that promote scholarship on African American history and that kind of translate the best, most current scholarship into the K-12 public school curriculum.

I work with many school districts across the United States of America, and it’s ironic that Florida has created its own system for African American history. I guess this is what you–when Governor DeSantis refers to the “free state of Florida,” he’s trying to take Florida in a different direction than the rest of the country in terms of our understanding of history.

MR. CAPEHART: Well, this gets to a great question from my Washington Post colleague, Renae Merle, who’s an editor on The Post, the Americas desk, and she asks, “Why are conservatives so intent on rewriting Black history versus Latino or Asian American history, or do you think other racial groups will be getting similar treatment soon?”

DR. ORTIZ: Well, Jonathan, that’s a wonderful question. It’s really on point, and it really pushes us to go take a step backwards. The state of Florida has banned critical race theory. The state of Florida has banned the 1619 history curriculum. The state of Florida has attempted to try to water down the study of history. The state of Florida has repeatedly attacked–and we’ll be specific here. Governor Ron DeSantis has repeatedly attacked educators as, quote/unquote, “groomers, subversives, and Marxists.” He has interfered in school board and school board elections in the state of Florida. He’s created a vigilante-type atmosphere which has led to librarians in the state of Florida receiving death threats, with books being banned.

But you’re right to put the focus on African American history, and, Jonathan, it’s ironic just a few days ago, Citigroup was one of the most recent large financial firms, including corporations, banks, et cetera, which has acknowledged that they greatly benefited from slavery. And America’s corporations and banks and insurance firms are finally coming around to saying, “Look, without slavery, we wouldn’t have built this incredible wealth that we currently have,” and so it’s no accident that Governor Ron DeSantis is trying to deny history and to say that, in fact, African American slaves were the ones that benefited from slavery. It’s very–it’s a very, kind of transparent political ploy by DeSantis and the state leaders.

MR. CAPEHART: Okay. I’m glad you brought that up because we’re going to have to get to the whole slaves-benefited-from-slavery portion of this conversation, and there are people who think that that line of argument is correct. And one of them is William Allen. He’s a professor emeritus of political science at Michigan State University and one of the creators of the new standards, and he told NPR that when he reflects on the “benefited from slavery” language in the curriculum, quote–he says, quote, “sees what Booker T. Washington meant when he entitled his autobiography ‘Up from Slavery’ rather than ‘Down from Slavery.'” How should teachers acknowledge the skills and accomplishments of enslaved people without watering down the trauma they endured?

DR. ORTIZ: Well, Professor Allen has had a distinguished career in political science, but he’s a Washington and a Madison expert. He’s not, in any way, shape, or form an expert on African American history. I’ve seen the quotes from Booker T. Washington. I believe he’s looked at those as a political scientist, from a presentist perspective. Of course, Booker T. Washington didn’t title his autobiography “Down from Slavery.” The reality of this is that for generations, we’ve known that this society benefited greatly from slavery, but the people who are the slaves themselves didn’t benefit at all. And what I mean by this is that much of the wealth of this country was built from slavery, and it was built from the expropriation of Native Americans.

And we’re just now coming to grips with that fact, Jonathan, and Ron DeSantis sees that as a threat because he’s running–but let’s be honest, he’s running for president right now. He is waging a losing, failing campaign. He’s lashing out. He’s doubled down on the woke thing.

And in terms of skills, astonishing that the standards again don’t–that the standards need to draw from the best, most accurate work in African American history. African American history, Jonathan, is studied now and learned all over the world, and any one of those experts who teach and who research African American history at our outstanding institutions, such as University of Florida or any university in the country, could have been consulted.

The fact is that people–that enslaved Africans, primarily from West Africa, who came to the Americas brought skills with them. Ironworking was centuries old in Africa by the time the transatlantic slaves trade started. Rice growing, indigo production, woodworking, West African cultures were renowned, many of them, for their incredible craftsmanship in wood and in iron and still are to this day. And so this demonstrates why these skills–were these skills important? Especially in the South, yes, they were, because for some reason, Southern slave owners were rarely able to recruit European woodworkers or European ironworkers to the South because, in fact, of slavery, another way that slavery did not benefit the actual workers, but it benefited the slave owners. It benefited the corporations. It benefited the banks. And this is what Ron DeSantis doesn’t want us to be talking about.

But ironically, the banks themselves, the corporations themselves are beginning to talk about it. The 1619 Curriculum attempts to raise a discussion about this, but in Florida, we’re supposed to be–we’re supposed to keep our eyes closed and our ears closed as well to these innovations in real scholarship.

MR. CAPEHART: Speaking personally, I just find it–I don’t know. I find it offensive that we’re even having to have this conversation about the, quote/unquote, “benefits of slavery,” and I find it kind of galling to hear the governor of a state of this nation talking about how slaves parlayed their skills into some kind of benefit after slavery.

Professor Ortiz, some believe that the new standards are corrective to liberal bias. Do you think the education standards for teaching Black history in Florida needed to be updated in the first place?

DR. ORTIZ: Well, what you’re saying, Jonathan– and I’ve heard that critique too, but anyone who claims there’s a liberal bias in Florida’s K-20 political systems is probably from the North. I don’t know. I don’t find liberal bias here. I’ve taught at the University of Florida for 2008. We have incredible teachers, K-12 teachers. They teach very balanced curricula. That curricula is subject to a lot of peer review.

The reality is that when Ron DeSantis really seized the power a few years ago over the state board of education, the number one goal was to shut down discussions or curriculum that even allowed students to think and debate and dialogue about issues like systemic racism, sexism, oppression. And in Florida, we’re not supposed to talk about these things. You know, that’s already been banned. When you talk about the banning of a critical race theory, that’s what the ban shut down, and so if you think that we have liberal bias in Florida, I’d ask you, you know, what planet are you from? It just doesn’t really exist here.

And if there was liberal bias in certain pieces of literature, so what? There’s a liberal bias in Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery.” He built an all-Black institution. He was accused of Black nationalism, right? And so assigning Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery” could be accused of liberal bias, but I think the overall problem, again, as you pointed out earlier, Jonathan, is the ways in which African American studies, the banning and censorship of African American studies curricula–Ron DeSantis clearly sees Black studies, black history as a threat, in part, because younger Americans–and we see this in Florida as well. We had a statewide series of teach-ins in February of earlier this year in response to Governor DeSantis’s attempt to ban and to censor the African American studies AP curriculum.

Younger people are hungry for knowledge, Jonathan. They want to learn. They want to learn all aspects of history. Whereas Ron DeSantis wants them to just learn the aspects that he wants them to learn.

MR. CAPEHART: Well, you know, Professor Ortiz, he will say–and as he has said–that part of the rationale for reevaluating Black history is so students won’t, quote, feel guilty–“feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress,” while reflecting on negative acts committed in the past by members of their race. In your experience, Professor Ortiz, as a history professor, focusing on Black and Latino history, has any student, particularly a White student, expressed those feelings to you?

DR. ORTIZ: Jonathan, students have not shared those feelings with me, but let me be very blunt here.

If you study something like slavery or the Holocaust or the genocide of Native Americans, you should feel bad. I feel bad. There should be a reckoning. There should be a realization that this was a grotesque injustice, talking about slavery, talking about the Holocaust. And will students sometimes feel bad? Yes, because they should. These were all horrific human tragedies that eclipsed anything that was ever known prior in history.

But what’s great about the American educational system, Jonathan, when we can get politicians out of it is it allows younger folks and older folks and students and teachers and professors and writers and journalists to debate and have dialogue about these things, and in the middle of this, the state of Florida is saying, “No, you can’t talk because these things because it might make one person feel bad.”

Look, I have a lot of former students who graduated from my courses at the University of Florida who became teachers in the state of Florida or who–I should say, some of them have left teaching in Florida, unfortunately, and moved to other states because of the banning, because of the censorship.

Jonathan, I had one student who came into my office in tears, a former student who took several courses of mine, who was being ordered by their–they were an apprentice teacher in a central Florida school district. I won’t call out which one, but this young teacher was being forced to teach a unit of slavery on slavery–and this is long–this is about six or seven years ago, even before Ron DeSantis became governor, and the student was being ordered to teach a unit on slavery that said that slaves and their masters work together to create a better Florida for all of us. Now–and the student was in tears.

MR. CAPEHART: I can’t–

DR. ORTIZ: Yeah.

MR. CAPEHART: I mean, go on. The student was in tears.

DR. ORTIZ: The student was in tears, and she said, you know, “I can’t teach this, Professor Ortiz. This is a lie. This is dishonest. This is dishonorable to African American slaves and their descendants.” The student, by the way, was a young White student, and she actually left teaching in Florida. And she’s teaching in another state now, but again, that’s pre-DeSantis.

And Ron DeSantis knows this, and if you–again, if you’re in a school district in Florida and you’re a teacher, the problem now is not liberal bias. It’s not grooming. It’s the fact that one parent can come into a classroom and essentially disrupt the learning that takes place. One parent can demand–I mean, I have former students who are teachers, Jonathan, who teach middle school, and that’s what the African American standards were revised to, you know, to talk about the benefit of slavery.

But I have former students who are teachers whose libraries have been shut down completely, Jonathan. The kids don’t even have access to the libraries–library books because they’re waiting for the state to–from some committee from the state to go through every single book, book by book, to make sure it’s not woke, and then they can reopen the library. But that could take months. It could take years.

Meanwhile, students are being punished here in Florida for political reasons.

MR. CAPEHART: I’m looking for–I have another colleague question, because this gets even more granular. My colleague, Lori Rozsa, who covers Florida for The Post and has written about the new standards–and she asks, “What do you think it means for the state standards to continue to use the word ‘slaves’ instead of ‘enslaved people,’ or is that term too CRT?”

DR. ORTIZ: Well, I think your colleague is correct. I mean, generally, in terms of African American history, we use the term “enslaved African Americans.” We use the term “enslaved people.” “Slaves” is still used sometimes because there are generations of newspapers. Even the anti-slavery press, if you’re a historian like me who depends upon, you know, Frederick Douglass’s paper, William Lloyd Garrison’s paper, the phrase “slaves” is very common, and so they’re both interchangeable. But it is telling that the term “enslaved people” is not used in this curatorial in Florida. Again, I think it’s–there’s–Florida’s leaders are really trying to take the state in a completely different direction, trying to distort and censor African American history.

And, Jonathan, the one of the–one of the positive things, though, is that there’s been a bipartisan realization across political lines that Florida has gone too far. I wish this would have happened years ago. I wish this kind of outcry would have occurred when the state of Florida banned the critical race theory, when the state of Florida banned the 1619 Curriculum. I wish the outcry would have started years and years and years ago, because I think what’s happened is that Ron DeSantis and his allies in Florida thought they could get away with this, because people outside the state were not pushing back. And he was getting–he gets tremendous funding.

I mean, look, this is a man who illegally and in a hostile manner shut down a state college, New College, for the same reasons that he has gerrymandered the African American Florida history standards, because he said New College was too woke, and he wanted to restart. He’s not a conservative in the traditional way of understanding. Ron DeSantis comes to tear down institutions. He doesn’t believe America works, and he wants to tear down the society and rebuild it in his own image. And African American history is at the center of that because African American history has been at the center of a reimagining of what this country could become, a more inclusive, a more diverse, a more welcoming society to all, to Latinos, to Asian Americans. And Ron DeSantis doesn’t want that.

MR. CAPEHART: Excuse me. You wrote a book about Black Floridians who fought for voting rights in 1920, which culminated in the bloodiest election day in modern American history, where they were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan and White supremacists. Briefly explain how you would teach this lesson before the new curriculum came into–before the Stop WOKE Act and after.

DR. ORTIZ: Yeah, yeah. Well, Jonathan, you’re referring to the election, the 1920 presidential election where in the wake of World War I, tens of thousands of African Americans heroically registered to vote, tried to vote. This was during the high tide of lynching. Many Black Floridians were assassinated. More were beaten, driven out of the state. And that story, which is a national story, which intersects, by the way, with the story of Mary McLeod Bethune–on a positive level, we’ve been able to get a statue of Dr. Bethune in the National Statuary Hall. But in a negative level, that story is not taught in Florida, Jonathan. It wasn’t taught before the Stop WOKE Act, and it’s certainly not going to be taught now.

That story is just reality. Ocoee, the massacre of African Americans who tried to vote in a town very close to–literally in the shadow of the EPCOT Center, by the way, but the story of Tulsa 1921, the story of Chicago 1919, East St. Louis 1917, Longview, the anti-Chinese pogroms, et cetera, et cetera, none of those stories can be taught now.

And I also resist the idea that this is only about African American history, Jonathan, because what’s happening in Florida is impacting so many different areas, and again, I have a lot of former students who are teachers are telling me, “Look, Professor Ortiz, we don’t offer units on the Holocaust anymore. We don’t teach Latino history anymore. We don’t teach Native American history anymore, because all it takes is one parent, and then we lose our jobs.” The principals are afraid. The administrations are afraid. Even college administrators are afraid, Jonathan. How many university presidents in Florida have you seen recently coming out with positive statements in support of academic or intellectual freedom? Not many.

MR. CAPEHART: Not many. And that is an excellent–an excellent observation.

Professor Ortiz, let me get your reaction to what Vice President Harris had to say in Orlando yesterday. We played a part of the clip in the introduction, but I want to read this one section which encompasses what we showed in the introduction, but I’m going to read it. She says, “Right here in Florida, right here in Florida, they plan to teach students that enslaved people benefited from slavery. They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, in an attempt to divide and distract our nation with unnecessary debates, and now they attempt to legitimize these unnecessary debates with a proposal that most recently came in of a politically motivated roundtable. Well, I’m here in Florida,” the vice president said, “and I will tell you, there is no roundtable, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact. There were no redeeming qualities of slavery.” And then the vice president goes on to say, “And as I said last week when I was again here in Florida, we will not stop calling out and fighting back against extremist, so-called ‘leaders’ who try to prevent our children from learning our true and full history.”

Professor Ortiz, how important is it that the vice president of the United States is not just talking about this but going directly to Florida and confronting head-on what we’ve been talking about in the last 24 minutes?

DR. ORTIZ: I think it’s very important, Jonathan, for Vice President Harris to have made those statements because it’s important that our national government really step up and say we want to honor the best, most accurate scholarship on our nation because we can’t talk about things like democracy or civic engagement unless we learn from the past and unless we have an open discussion about what occurred in the past. And so I think Vice President Harris’s remarks are very important.

And also, I think her remarks lead us, Jonathan, into what could become a productive discussion about slavery, and there are many of these discussions happening right now, even as we speak, unfortunately, much fewer in Florida. A productive discussion–I wish Ron DeSantis would have used the time he had at the podium, instead of creating a fantasy about blacksmiths, a craft of which he knows absolutely nothing, I wish he would have talked about the anti-slavery struggle. I wish you would have talked about the Underground Railroad, which was an inclusive, intersectional struggle against slavery that lasted generations. I wish he would have talked about Frederick Douglass. I wish he would have talked about Mary McLeod Bethune or John Brown or people who struggled against oppression, because there, yes, you can have positive discussions, because in that sense, there was something positive that came out of slavery, and that is the struggle against slavery, not slavery but the struggle against slavery. That was generations long.

And look, here’s the tragedy, Jonathan. Think about all of these amazing figures from Florida who struggled against oppression, A. Philip Randolph, Mary McLeod Bethune, Howard Thurman. The list goes on. I could talk about them all day. And Ron DeSantis decided to talk about a fictional blacksmith. Isn’t that telling on our state of politics today? I mean, it’s really just a sad thing.

MR. CAPEHART: And a lot of things.

Last question for you, Professor, in the couple minutes that we have left. The school year is about to start. As a union president and as a professor, how are you gearing up for the fall semester?

DR. ORTIZ: Well, you know, there’s both positives and negatives, Jonathan. I mean, one of the negatives is for K-12 classrooms, there is a deficit of teachers. There’s a teaching shortage. There’s a librarian shortage. I mentioned earlier that not a few–school libraries are shut down. Now, among my colleagues in higher education, I’m getting emails and communications almost every day: “Paul, should I offer this article that talks about the history of oppression against women?” We didn’t mention gender studies, but I’m getting emails from colleagues saying, “Can I even talk about gender studies anymore, Paul?” And these are from college professors, Jonathan. There’s a fear we didn’t–you know, we should talk about SB 266. I think there–that’s worth a discussion as well.

The effort by the state of Florida to destroy DEI initiatives–and so I have colleagues and I’ve talked to staff people all throughout the state of Florida who are devastated, who are afraid for their jobs. Imagine creating an anti-DEI initiative without thinking about the economic impact, the fact that this involves people’s jobs. The state of Florida apparently doesn’t care about that, and so all of these things are really having a negative impact. It should be an exciting time. It’s a time when teachers are meeting parents next week, when professors are revising our syllabi, adding in new things, trying to get better, reading our student evaluations. Jonathan, this should be a time of renewal, of excitement for our students, our teachers, our parents, our communities, but instead, the state of Florida has turned it into what the federal Judge Walker called a “dystopia” with these efforts to try to censor and ban African American history.

MR. CAPEHART: Well, Professor, I could talk to you all day about all of this. Even though it’s a depressing conversation, talking with you about this actually gives me a little bit of hope that we can get through this tough time.

Paul Ortiz, director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and professor of history at the University of Florida, thank you very much for coming to “Capehart” on Washington Post Live.

DR. ORTIZ: Thank you, Jonathan.

MR. CAPEHART: And thank you for joining us. To check out what interviews we have coming up, head to

Once again, I’m Jonathan Capehart, associate editor at The Washington Post. Thanks for watching “Capehart” on Washington Post Live.

[End recorded session]

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

This post was originally published on this site