Kamala Harris enters brawl over how Florida schools teach about slavery in America

The fervor over Florida’s new standards for Black history has reached the White House.

Vice President Kamala Harris went to Jacksonville to decry a provision that says slaves in some instances benefited from skills they learned in captivity.

“They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, and we will not have it,” Ms. Harris told a crowd Friday at the Ritz Theatre and Museum. “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.”

A 216-page document approved by the Florida Board of Education this week includes updates to standards for Black history. One clarification in the document says: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Updates to the standards were required by a 2022 law that was signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and dubbed the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act or Stop WOKE Act.

William Allen and Frances Presley Rice, who are members of the African American History Standards Workgroup, defended the revisions as well-established and worth teaching.

“The intent of this particular benchmark clarification is to show that some slaves developed highly specialized trades from which they benefitted. This is factual and well documented,” they said, outlining examples such as shoemakers, blacksmiths and other industry workers.

“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.

The debate is unfolding as Mr. DeSantis runs for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination on a platform that centers on parental rights and ensuring that educational materials are age-appropriate.

Some critics say his efforts go too far and amount to book banning. 

His defenders say they are rooting out content that is clearly inappropriate for children.

“Democrats like Kamala Harris have to lie about Florida’s educational standards to cover for their agenda of indoctrinating students and pushing sexual topics onto children,” Mr. DeSantis said on Twitter. “Florida stands in their way and we will continue to expose their agenda and their lies.”

Some critics of the Florida curriculum faulted a second update in the standards that says Black people were at times perpetrators of violence during riots in the Reconstruction period and beyond.

“Instruction includes 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,” the clarification says.

Ms. Harris accused Florida of trying to replace history with lies.

“Middle school students in Florida [will be] told that enslaved people benefited from slavery,” she said. “High schoolers may be taught that victims of violence, of massacres were also perpetrators.”

The Florida Education Association, a major teachers union, has criticized the new standards as a “big step backward.”

“You’re not fighting out here by yourselves,” Ms. Harris told a supportive crowd. “We believe in you, we believe in the people of Florida.”

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