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Untangling the controversy over Florida’s black history curriculum.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a fundraiser on July 15, 2023 in Ankeny, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Fairness is good for the soul even when the beneficiary doesn’t deserve it.

There are many in politics who don’t deserve it. Like Ron DeSantis.

No modern Republican has done more to normalize using state power to target cultural enemies than he has. It’s the core of his presidential campaign: His argument against Donald Trump is that Trump talks a good post-liberal game but the governor of Florida is the only one actually playing. DeSantis, not Trump, punched Disney in the face for criticizing right-wing policies, muscled tech companies on how they should police their social media platforms, demanded an investigation of COVID vaccines, and signed bills various and sundry aimed at LGBT constituencies.

He’s so keen to position himself as an enemy of gays that his own campaign aides have reportedly resorted to creating gay-baiting web videos and laundering them through friendly social-media users.

He’s the candidate of “serious” New Right authoritarians, the Orbán-curious who demand more from populism than autocratic theatrics. The yahoos among the Republican base can keep their Trump rallies; for the ideologues keen to remake American government—who know what time it is, as the DeSantis droogs like to say—there’s the governor.

How much fairness do we owe a character like that?

The more pernicious the beneficiary, the more morally challenging fairness becomes. If I told you that DeSantis’ grim political career might plausibly be ended by accusing him of something he hadn’t done, would you amplify the smear even if you believed it to be false?

I would not, despite the obvious “greater good” argument to the contrary. Practicing utter ruthlessness toward one’s opponents on ends-means grounds is less a matter of defeating them than becoming them. It would make American politics more pernicious on the whole, not less. Bad for the soul, bad for the country. 

And you, the reader, almost certainly agree. After all, you subscribe to one of the last few right-wing media outlets in America that doesn’t celebrate ruthlessness as a political ethic.

So let’s do something that’s uncomfortable yet morally hygienic. Let’s be fair to Ron DeSantis.

Last week the vice president of the United States awakened from a long political stupor. The cause of her invigoration was, of all things, Florida’s new social studies curriculum.

In 2022 DeSantis signed the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, a response to the panic on the right over critical race theory. Of course he did: For all the hype about the governor’s post-liberal “vision” for America, his legislative priorities are highly reactive to whatever the populist hobby horse du jour happens to be. It’s an endless game of fetch with Very Online MAGA activists tossing the ball and Ron DeSantis loyally bounding after it in whatever direction it happens to go.

Which isn’t a bad thing per se. We want politicians to address their base’s concerns. But to give you a sense of how pitifully desperate DeSantis can be to ingratiate himself to the Trumpists he’s wooing, go watch this recent video of him threatening to bring a shareholder derivative suit on behalf of Florida’s pension fund against Bud Light for damaging the brand by advertising to trans consumers. (Ignore the fact that it was a right-wing boycott of Bud Light that reduced sales to begin with.) There’s no culture-war dispute so trivial that America’s thirstiest governor won’t chase it with threats of state remediation in the name of pandering to the most reactionary voters in the Republican grassroots.

Today it’s Bud Light, last year it was critical race theory. And so the Stop W.O.K.E. Act was duly passed and signed, assuring among other things that Florida’s public school students would be taught “meritocracy or hard work ethic are not racist but fundamental to the right to pursue success.” The experts responsible for setting the state’s K-12 curriculum overhauled their lesson plans to guarantee compliance with the new law.

When the updated curriculum was released last week, it included this line in the lessons for grades 6-8: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

As George Will might say: Well.

Word spread quickly that Florida will now teach that African Americans benefited from their own enslavement. An uncharacteristically nimble Kamala Harris added a last-second trip to the state to address the subject and spoke passionately about it more than once in the last few days.

The governor himself was asked about his state’s new lesson plan this weekend—and defended it. After making sure everyone knew he wasn’t involved, of course.


Is the state of Florida now teaching sixth graders that, ackshually, slavery was good?

It is not, and even a cursory skim of the curriculum proves it. Let’s be fair to Ron DeSantis.

On Friday Charles Cooke found himself so disgusted by the distortions of Florida’s new lesson plan that he reproduced the state’s updated curriculum in African American history in its entirety—191 items strong—in his post about it at National Review. I won’t subject you to that but I do invite you to scroll through pages 3-21 and see for yourself just how unrepresentative the idea of slaves benefiting from slavery is in context. This is no whitewash.

On the contrary. Here’s a sample lesson for grades 9-12:

Here’s another:

Instruction in African American history starts in kindergarten, with an introduction to black inventors and explorers like George Washington Carver. By high school there are no less than 55 separate lessons beginning with slavery before 1619 and concluding with present-day statesmen like Barack Obama, Clarence Thomas, and, er, Kamala Harris.

Shorn of context, one can understand why skeptics would assume the worst about the favored candidate of the Orbán-curious wanting students to learn that slaves could “apply for their personal benefit” the skills they gained from slavery. But in context, amid scores of lessons detailing centuries of persecution of African Americans, it’s impossible to believe DeSantis’ expert board aimed to whitewash the practice. I suspect the lesson about learning a trade amid horrendous oppression is chiefly a lesson about black Americans’ resilience and a tribute to their indomitability. And, of course, a reminder of how much human potential was exploited by the institution on pain of death.

One of the experts involved in setting the standards has said as much.

The left-wing hysteria over this smells suspiciously like the left-wing hysteria two years ago over Georgia’s new election law, which Joe Biden preposterously described at the time as “Jim Crow on steroids” and which led to Major League Baseball yanking that year’s All-Star Game from Atlanta in protest. A year later, that law made possible record-breaking early voting that enabled the reelection of a black incumbent to the U.S. Senate. MLB is now considering Atlanta as the site of the 2025 All-Star Game. 

And yet, as I write this, indignant rants about the new curriculum continue to boil over from the White House to The View. Why are so many so eager to punish DeSantis over this sin-that-isn’t-a-sin when he has so many actual sins that he might more properly be punished for?

We might answer that question with a question. What has Ron DeSantis done to earn the benefit of the doubt on this controversy from anyone observing it from afar?

Note that the bit about slaves accruing a “personal benefit” while enslaved isn’t the only eyebrow-raising passage in the new curriculum. One lesson for grades 9-12 focuses on violence “perpetrated against and by African Americans” during the early 20th century, which is a bit like focusing on violence perpetrated “against and by” Jews in occupied Europe. No doubt there are subjects like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that could rightly be tossed in the “by” column, but to both-sides a conflict in which the victim and victimizer are plainly apparent smells of moral equivalence.

Another problem: When members of the Florida curriculum board were asked for examples of slaves who acquired skills from which they later benefited, they identified 16 historic figures. But not all of those were slaves, it turns out. And some who were enslaved briefly as children ended up developing the talents for which they later became known only after they were emancipated.

If you insist upon instructing students in the useful skills African Americans acquired from slavery, your facts had better be immaculate. To flub the details of this lesson among all lessons is to invite skepticism of the rigor of the entire curriculum and of the apolitical good faith of the experts’ motives. (Some liberals on social media also flagged a passage citing comparatively little-known conservative scholars Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele alongside figures like LBJ and John Lewis as having “shaped the modern Civil Rights efforts.”) If there was any chance of DeSantis getting the benefit of the doubt from neutral parties, his team of scholars may have squandered it with their sloppiness.

There was no chance of him getting the benefit of the doubt from political actors, meanwhile. The idea of post-liberal right-wingers teaching kids that slavery was more nuanced, shall we say, than They would have you believe feels more plausible than it rightly should.

Many liberals view DeSantis’ campaign against critical race theory and his new “elections police force” as thinly veiled antagonism toward African Americans, part of his many crowd-pleasing panders to the American right’s worst elements. In February the Washington Post described rising alarm among black activists at DeSantis’ agenda, a key part of which is education.

As DeSantis (R) gears up for a potential presidential run in 2024, Black activists and political strategists around the country are organizing, protesting and preparing to highlight the particular danger they say he and his anti-“woke” movement pose to civil rights and to their push to tackle racism as a systemic issue. Some say they are determined not to repeat what they consider a tepid and belated response to Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency in 2016, and argue that DeSantis’s political strategy is even more rooted in racial division than Trump’s.

These Black leaders view Florida’s recent rejection of an Advanced Placement African American history course as part of a pattern of dismissing their community’s concerns and enacting policy that threatens their rights. State officials denounced some of the AP curriculum on issues such as reparations and the Black Lives Matter movement, calling it “woke indoctrination.”

One community leader based in Jacksonville called the rejection of the AP class “an attack on blacks.” When that’s the baseline you’re starting from when rolling out a new curriculum that includes lessons on how slavery imparts valuable skills, go figure that you might not get the benefit of the doubt from the target audience.

As cynical as Kamala Harris has been in demagoging DeSantis, then, it’s also a rare example of the VP practicing good politics. She’s the highest-ranking African American official in the United States; this is personal to her in a way that it isn’t, and can’t be, to Biden. The prospect of her becoming president will be a major subplot of next year’s campaign, as will the prospect of black voters failing to show up for the dismal Democratic incumbent. If Harris can leverage some anger at DeSantis’ curriculum to get the liberal base on her side and eager to vote, it’s worth doing.

DeSantis deserves, and will receive, no benefit of the doubt from the center-right either.

Chris Christie was asked on Sunday what he thought of the governor disclaiming responsibility for the state’s new curriculum amid the controversy over it. “You know, the fact is that Gov. DeSantis starts these things for political advantage,” he said. “He tries to take political advantage of them, and then he says, ‘I don’t know, I didn’t do it. I wasn’t involved. I mean, that’s not leadership, Margaret.”

That’s an underrated point about why it’s hard to defend DeSantis on this topic. One may believe, as I do, that his experts had good intentions in crafting the new curriculum but I don’t believe the governor has good intentions in picking the political fights he picks. Viewed within the context of his strategy to become president, his drumbeat of culture-war campaigns—hopping from anti-woke to anti-gay to anti-vax and back again—feels like an increasingly sweaty attempt to convince the GOP’s illiberal base that he’ll antagonize all of the groups they dislike more than Trump would. He does indeed “start these things for political advantage,” as Christie says, not that you’d know it from the latest primary polls.

As invested as DeSantis is in his image as a “policy guy,” in other words, the details of each individual policy ironically don’t matter much. (Which may explain why so many of his culture-war initiatives end up being enjoined in court.) What matters is the signaling, the performance of cultural antagonism in official acts. So, yes, I believe him when he says that he “wasn’t involved” in drafting the new curriculum. Why would he have been? His interest in the subject surely peaked on the day he got to talk about something called “the Stop W.O.K.E. Act” on Fox News, a shrewd political play in a party where more people think racism against whites is a “big problem” than racism against blacks.

How much can one rightly grieve the unfairness with which he’s been treated in this matter, then? It feels like just deserts, a case of a culture-war demagogue getting a taste of his own medicine for once. Fairly or not.

In the end, the firestorm over Florida’s curriculum reminds me of this memorable ad out of Ohio ahead of the state’s vote on abortion rights next month.

I do not believe the Republican Party is coming for your condoms. The most memorable thing said by a Republican about contraception in the last 10 (well, 11) years was the first Mormon major-party nominee for president insisting that birth control is “working just fine” at a Republican primary debate. That makes the ad unfair on its own terms.

But it’s also true that no one knows in 2023 where the American right is going and where it intends to stop if allowed to proceed unchecked. A party that’s considerably more hostile to classical liberalism now than it was when it nominated Mitt Romney for president is a party whose landing point is impossible to predict. It seems ridiculous to imagine Donald Trump’s GOP growing more hostile to contraception over time than Mitt Romney’s did, but it’s likely already the case that the average MAGA populist is more hostile to gay rights than Sen. Mitt Romney is—a ridiculous outcome in its own right. 

So it is with Ron DeSantis and the great curriculum debate. There may be nothing untoward about this version of Florida’s curriculum but how much should we wager on the same being true next year or in five years? Cultural revanchism has a momentum all its own. Remain vigilant, while also trying to remain scrupulously fair.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.