Despite strong backlash from Democrats and fellow Republicans, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is tripling down on his state’s newly approved social studies curriculum guidelines that erroneously teach students that enslaved people “developed skills” that they could use for “personal benefit.”
Since news of the state’s new standards gained attention in mid-July, DeSantis has faced criticism — including from four of the five Black congressional Republicans, almost all of whom support former president Donald Trump for the Republican nomination.
“What slavery was really about was separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives,” said Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is also running for president. “It was just devastating. So I would hope that every person in our country — and certainly running for president — would appreciate that.”
But DeSantis is continuing to defend the standards. In a recent NBC interview this week, the governor stated that enslaved people “developed skills in spite of slavery, not because of slavery,” adding that “it was them showing resourcefulness and then using those skills once slavery ended.”
In the interview, DeSantis also defended the steps his administration has taken in the past year to overhaul various aspects of that state’s education system. “We’ve been involved in education, not indoctrination,” he said. “Those standards were not political at all.”
The controversy is the latest in a string of education-related fights for DeSantis, including the state’s rejection of the AP African American History course, the dismantling of the state’s tenure system, and the conservative takeover of the small New College of Florida. With each move, DeSantis has attempted to model what he would do nationally as president.
But his latest comments have spotlighted his rocky presidential campaign — his approval rating among Republican voters stands at 17 percent in a recent poll with Trump at 54 percent — and how his strategy to antagonize liberals and fight “wokeness” may be backfiring. The controversy also highlights the Republican Party’s sluggish gains among Black voters, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, as it makes a rightward shift on race.
What’s in the standards and how they came to be
On July 19, Florida’s state board of education approved new standards for African American history for instruction in kindergarten through high school classrooms. The state organized a working group to update the state’s standards and ensure that they comply with HB 7, also known as the Stop WOKE (Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees) Act, which DeSantis signed into law in 2022 and states “classroom instruction and curriculum may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view inconsistent with the principles” contained in the law.
The 19 pages of standards are benchmarks that determine what knowledge students should be taught. The kindergarten through fourth grade standards require students to identify Black people who have had a “positive impact” in politics, art, invention, and other areas. Beginning in the fifth grade, students start to learn about slavery through lessons on the Underground Railroad.
In the sixth through eighth grade, teachers instruct about the slave trade and slave revolts, among other topics. They also learn about how slavery was codified in the law. In these sections, teachers are guided to create lessons about the jobs enslaved people performed, including tailoring, blacksmithing, and agricultural tasks, and how the skills they learned could be used for “personal benefit.”
The high school standards are the most extensive, guiding teachers to produce lessons on everything from key Black figures to Black people’s history of resistance and sacrifice.
Though Republican legislators and the state’s education commissioner celebrated the new standards, hundreds of teachers across the state, supported by education and civil rights advocacy groups, criticized them.
Broadly, critics have said the standards are “watered down” and “incomplete.” Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, told EducationWeek that the middle school standards don’t make “enough connections between the past and present.” More specifically, the high school standards don’t “dive into Florida’s efforts to keep segregation in place.”
Other critics told EducationWeek that new standards are limited in their coverage of ancient Africa, are missing key facts, and lack nuance, since they “mimic instruction of U.S. history with more Black faces and without critical thought and analysis of concepts that are more typically a part of African American history and African American studies courses.”
Ahead of the board of education’s vote, teachers demanded that the standards be tabled to allow for revision. “These new standards present only half the story and half the truth. When we name political figures who worked to end slavery but leave anyone who worked to keep slavery legal nameless, kids are forced to fill in the blanks for themselves,” said Carol Cleaver, an Escambia County science teacher, at a meeting in Orlando ahead of the vote, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Two standards in particular garnered national outrage. Critics identified as problematic the section of the middle school standards that states “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” In response to this standard, Vice President Harris flew down to Florida to deliver a speech, stating, “Adults know what slavery really involved. It involved rape. It involved torture. It involved taking a baby from their mother. It involved some of the worst examples of depriving people of humanity in our world.”
Critics also pointed to a section of the standards that highlights “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans but is not limited to 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, 1919 Washington, D.C. Race Riot, 1920 Ocoee Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Massacre and the 1923 Rosewood Massacre.” According to critics, this standard whitewashes history and ignores the terror Black Americans faced.
DeSantis has continued to say that a group of Black scholars developed the standards. But as NBC reported, a majority of the members of the group did not support the most controversial elements that were approved.
What this means for the Republican Party
The standards are a natural extension of DeSantis’s legislation. The Florida governor signed the Stop WOKE Act, which limits discussions about race in the classroom and at work. The law was written to ensure that white people don’t feel guilt, shame, or psychological distress about racism.
The standards — and DeSantis’s insistence on defending the lesson on how enslaved people gained skills to their “personal benefit” — are an example of what that law looks like in practice.
This time, the standards went too far for some Black Republicans. “Slavery was not CTE! Nothing about that 400 years of evil was a ‘net benefit’ to my ancestors,” tweeted Rep. John James, a Michigan Republican, referring to the acronym for career and technical education.
But in the party overall, Republican leaders have moved right on race, aligning with far-right figures who reject the idea that minority groups face structural bias. Political scientists who studied voters in the 2016 and 2020 elections in one study determined that the strongest predictor of who voted for Donald Trump was the belief that systemic racism is not a factor in American society. The second strongest predictor was the belief that women don’t face systemic bias.
Donald Trump, the current frontrunner, sat down for dinner with white supremacist Nick Fuentes in November. A number of Republican House members, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, spoke at a white supremacist gathering where attendees chanted “Putin!” Sen. Tommy Tuberville repeatedly refused to denounce white supremacists, calling them “Americans” instead. (After multiple interviews, he made a short statement that “white nationalists are racists.”) Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona called Black people “colored people” on the House floor in July. (Crane says he “misspoke.”)
Other Republicans have dismissed racism. Though Scott rebuked DeSantis for his comments, the senator has repeatedly argued that racism is no longer a problem in America. During a June Fox News Town Hall, he said, “When I hear people telling me that America is a racist nation, I got to say: Not my America, not our America” — a statement he made despite having spoken extensively in the past about the racism he has faced, including repeatedly being pulled over for traffic stops by the police. Scott was pulled over seven times in one year.
Presented with Scott’s statement during the NBC interview, DeSantis responded, saying, “Don’t take that side of Kamala Harris against the state of Florida. Don’t indulge those lies.”
During her trip to Florida, the vice president said she was there to denounce “extremists” who were forcing “propaganda” onto Florida students.
DeSantis then invited Harris to debate the standards. Harris replied: “There is no roundtable, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact: There were no redeeming qualities of slavery.”