Republicans Diminishing the Cruelty of Black Slavery is a Loser’s Play

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Florida Governor DeSantis is downplaying Black Slavery by orchestrating a new educational instructions plan, Florida’s State Academic Standards – Social Studies, 2023prompted by a new law he pushed.

DeSantis had the Republican-controlled legislature pass the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” the acronym stands for “Wrong to our Kids and Employees.” It was designed to stop “wokeness,” which Republicans define as focusing on historical injustices that may create a false sense of responsibility among those who were not responsible. All public schools are required to use the new instructional plan.

Specifically, teachers could not make students feel “guilty for past actions committed by their race, and they could not imply that meritocracy is racist or that people are privileged or oppressed based on race, gender, or national origin.” In other words, teachers could not raise the issue that institutional racism exists. 

The first seventeen pages of the plan set guidelines for teaching African American Studies in public schools beginning in the 5th grade. Read this section in the new academic standards. You will be surprised by what initially appears to be a comprehensive identification of essential issues around Black slavery and culture. However, it had some critical gaffs. And it included a misleading statement, reprinted below, that ignited a national controversy about the new plan. 

The wording is found on page 6 of the plan. 

            Examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves (e.g., agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation).  

Benchmark Clarifications:
            Clarification 1: Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit. 

A takeaway can easily assume that enslaved Blacks picked up trade skills they could use once freed for personal benefit. That is, once they escaped slavery or the Confederacy lost the civil war. The plan carefully avoids implying that the South losing the war was a good thing that allowed the slaves to employ those skills. 

By showing how slavery helped Blacks obtain employment skills, conservatives like DeSantis hoped to expose liberal programs, such as providing reparations to the descendants of enslaved Black people, as a waste of taxpayers’ money. Diminishing human suffering under slavery served that purpose for him. And unfortunately, states like Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Ohio have pushed bills that would stop or change how teachers instruct on race along similar guidelines.

Resistance to this trend is often missing, allowing a few to set the course. For instance, several members from DeSantis’s workgroup told NBC News that only two members advocated for the criticized language: William Allen and Frances Presley Rice, both conservative Black Republicans. DeSantis would not approve of two liberal Black Democrats since they are tagged as the instigators of Wokism. 

Allen explained his position to NPR and then joined Rice in posting a statement on Twitter strongly defending their findings. They wrote that it was important to clarify that “some slaves developed highly specialized trades from which they benefitted. This is factual and well documented.” They made no mention that over 98% of the Black slaves were field workers, not semi-skilled workers.

Fay Wylde, writing in Medium, checked the documentation on the 16 examples Allen and Rice provided of Black slaves who developed marketable skills. Three of the four that they said were blacksmiths were never slaves. Although DeSantis highlighted them as examples of how slaves could succeed in life because of learning that skill. Two of the three identified as shoemakers were born freemen, and the third was a white woman. In his piece Two Black History “Experts” in Florida Display Spectacular Ignorance, Wylde systematically exposes Allen and Rice’s evidence as shoddy at best, if not just providing misinformation.

A cultural battle to excuse Black slavery is a loser for DeSantis and Republicans. Not only because this is a merciless message but also because he ineptly initiated his plan. In his hubris to lead this issue, he failed to get any reasonable signoff from the most impacted community. He also skipped a public discussion to release a far-reaching public policy. 

His first error was ignoring Florida’s African American History Task Force, which consists of Black educators and community leaders. It has provided advice on teaching Black history for the last 29 years. And the state law required that it have input on the instruction standards for African American history classes. 

Reporters from the Daily Beast and Raw Story wrote how members of this established task force said Gov. Ron DeSantis didn’t inform them of his new mission to restructure how Black history was taught. Instead, he created his own task force, the African American History Workgroup. NBC could find no written criteria for selecting the members. 

DeSantis’s group said the plan would “detail African American contributions in art and civic service, patriotism, the livelihood of people who were enslaved, and abolitionist movements.” However, state Sen. Geraldine Thomas pointed out, “Florida statute requires that instruction be provided on African civilization before colonization and slavery.” 

She added, “This focus was totally missing from the newly adopted standards.” Without the story of how African Blacks had been torn away from their established society, they became individual bodies treated as a piece of property, a commodity to be sold and traded. 

The new instructional plan also makes no mention of two critical efforts to keep Blacks subjugated to the dominant white population in the South. The first was Anti-literacy state laws that made it illegal for enslaved and free people of color to read or write. Southern slave states enacted anti-literacy laws between 1740 and 1834, prohibiting anyone from teaching enslaved and free people of color to read or write.

The second effort was a set of state Black codes that limited African Americans’ freedom and ensured their availability as a cheap labor force after slavery was abolished. Many states required Black people to sign yearly labor contracts; if they refused, they risked being arrested, fined, and forced into unpaid labor.

The problem that DeSantis and his supporters face is how to justify bending over backward to describe slavery as bearable. They attempt to weave a few threads of facts into a grand tapestry. That is impossible unless you begin to use lies to present a whole picture to your liking. While many white Republican leaders look away from DeSantis’s effort, some Black Republican congressional members fight back.  

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Tim Scott, told reporters from central Indiana’s FOX affiliate that “There is no silver lining in slavery.” While campaigning in Iowa, he told a Politico reporter that “every person in our country, and certainly running for president, would appreciate that” slavery had no benefits to enslaved people.

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), the only Black Republican in Florida’s congressional delegation and a Trump supporter, meekly criticized DeSantis’s new educational standards. While he called them “good, robust & accurate,” he added that the “attempt to feature the personal benefits of slavery is wrong & needs to be adjusted.” DeSantis, like Trump, doesn’t tolerate disloyal Republicans. He promptly accused Donalds of siding with Vice President Kamala Harris and liberal media who condemned his efforts. 

Black Republican Congressman Republican Rep. John James complained about DeSantis attacking fellow congressional members, Sen. Scott and Rep. Donalds. He tweeted #1: slavery was not CTE! Nothing about that 400 years of evil was a “net benefit” to my ancestors,” “#2: there are only five Black Republicans in Congress, and you’re attacking two of them.” 

A bigger electoral problem for the Republican party than having angry Black Republican congressional members is the toll that excusing slavery will have on turning off independent voters. A Gallup poll this spring showed that three-quarters of independents are not strong partisans; they tend to vote against the party they don’t like instead of voting for a party they agree with.

About a third of independents lean toward Democrats, but more importantly, many who leaned toward Republicans voted for Biden in 2020 and rejected Trump. That shift tipped the electoral votes in the swing states to make Biden president. This critical slice of independent voters could rebuff an insensitive Republican Party that believes slavery was a tolerable experience, not a horrid one. That message shows a cold, uncaring party that is easy to reject.

The bottom line, Republicans trying to polish the image of Black slavery will expand cracks in their party and siphon off independents come election day – opening the door to a Democratic victory come 2024. 

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

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