DeSantis Faces Swell of Criticism Over Florida’s New Standards for Black History
"In one benchmark, middle schoolers would learn that enslaved Americans developed skills that “could be applied for their personal benefit.”
After an overhaul to Florida’s African American history standards, Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state’s firebrand governor campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, is facing a barrage of criticism this week from politicians, educators and historians, who called the state’s guidelines a sanitized version of history.
For instance, the standards say that middle schoolers should be instructed that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit” — a portrayal that drew wide rebuke.
In a sign of the divisive battle around education that could infect the 2024 presidential race, Vice President Kamala Harris directed her staffers to immediately plan a trip to Florida to respond, according to one White House official.
“How is it that anyone could suggest that in the midst of these atrocities that 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.
Ahead of her speech, Mr. DeSantis released a statement accusing the Biden administration of mischaracterizing the new standards and being “obsessed with Florida.”
Florida’s new standards land in the middle of a national tug of war on how race and gender should be taught in schools. There have been local skirmishes over banning books, what can be said about race in classrooms and debates over renaming schools that have honored Confederate generals.
Mr. DeSantis has made fighting a “woke” agenda in education a signature part of his national brand. He overhauled New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college, and rejected the College Board’s A.P. course on African American studies. And his administration updated the state’s math and social studies textbooks, scrubbing them for “prohibited topics” like social-emotional learning, which helps students develop positive mind-sets, and critical race theory, which looks at the systemic role of racism in society.
With Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Biden now both official candidates in the 2024 campaign, each side quickly accused the other of pushing propaganda onto children.
Florida’s rewrite of its African American history standards comes in response to a 2022 law signed by Mr. DeSantis, known as the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” which prohibits instruction that could prompt students to feel discomfort about a historical event because of their race, sex or national origin.
The new standards seem to emphasize the positive contributions of Black Americans throughout history, from Booker T. Washington to Zora Neale Hurston.
Fifth graders are expected to learn about the “resiliency” of African Americans, including how the formerly enslaved helped others escape as part of the Underground Railroad, and about the contributions of African Americans during westward expansion.
The teaching of positive history is important, said Albert S. Broussard, a professor of African American studies at Texas A&M University who has helped write history textbooks for McGraw Hill. “Black history is not just one long story of tragedy and sadness and brutality,” he said.
But he saw some of Florida’s adjustments as going too far, de-emphasizing the violence and inhumanity endured by Black Americans and resulting in only a “partial history.”
“It’s the kind of sanitizing students are going to pick up,” he said. “Students are going to ask questions and they are going to demand answers.”
The Florida Department of Education said the new standards were the result of a “rigorous process,” describing them as “in-depth and comprehensive.”
“They incorporate all components of African American History: the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Alex Lanfranconi, the department’s director of communications.
One contested standard states that high school students should learn about “violence perpetrated against and by African Americans” during race massacres of the early 20th century, such as the Tulsa Race Massacre. In that massacre, white rioters destroyed a prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla., and as many as 300 people were killed.
By saying that violence was perpetrated not just against but “by African Americans,” the standards seem to grasp at teaching “both sides” of history, said LaGarrett King, the 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.”
By and large, historians say, race massacres during the early 1900s were led by white groups, often to stop Black residents from voting.
That was the case in the Ocoee Massacre of 1920, in which a white crowd, incensed by a Black man’s attempt to vote, burned Black homes and churches to the ground 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 the massacre, said she was not consulted in the formation of the new standards, though she holds a nonvoting role on the Commissioner of Education’s African American History Task Force.
She said she would have objected to the standards as “slanted” and “incomplete.” She questioned, for instance, why more emphasis was not placed on the history of African people before colonization and enslavement.
“Our history doesn’t begin with slavery,” she said in an interview. “It begins with some of the greatest civilizations in the world.”
The Florida standards were created by a 13-member “work group,” with input from the African American history task force, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Two members of the work group, William Allen and Frances Presley Rice, released a statement responding to critiques of one of the most dissected standards, depicting enslaved African Americans as personally benefiting from their skills.
“The intent of this particular benchmark clarification is to show that some slaves developed highly specialized trades from which they benefited,” they said, citing blacksmithing, shoemaking and fishing as examples.
“Any attempt to reduce slaves to just victims of oppression fails to recognize their strength, courage and resiliency during a difficult time in American history,” they said. “Florida students deserve to learn how slaves took advantage of whatever circumstances they were in to benefit themselves and the community of African descendants.”
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.
The state mandates date back decades — Florida’s was passed in 1994 — and often came in response to demands from Black residents and educators, said Dr. King, at the University at Buffalo.
“There is a legacy of Black people fighting for their history,” he said.
But for 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 story lines have emerged as more palatable to a white audience, Dr. King said.
“There is Black history,” he said. “But the question has always been, well, what Black history are we going to teach?”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting"