Ron DeSantis's Florida Board of Education: Hey, What About the “Personal Benefit” of Being a Slave?

Florida’s new African American studies curriculum standards will force public school students to learn about some of the supposed upsides of slavery.
Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event in Iowa July 14.
Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event in Iowa July 14.Rachel Mummey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ron DeSantis’s war on “wokeness” in schools ascended to dangerous new heights Wednesday, as Florida’s State Board of Education approved new African American studies curriculum standards that, among other things, would force public school students to learn about some of the supposed upsides of slavery — a whitewashing of history that the state’s largest teachers union decried as a “big step backward” for education.

“Gov. DeSantis is pursuing a political agenda guaranteed to set good people against one another, and in the process he’s cheating our kids,” Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said in a statement blasting the new African American studies standards. “They deserve the full truth of American history, the good and the bad.”

Florida public school students may not get that under the new rules approved Wednesday, which require teachers— in a section on slavery— to note that “slaves developed skills, which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” In a section on “Reconstruction and beyond,” a period marked by Jim Crow and routine white terrorism on Black communities, the new rules dictate that students must be taught about “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans,” which, as Democratic State Senator Geraldine Thompson pointed out, suggests incidents like the Ocoee Massacre were “sparked by violence from African Americans.”

“That’s blaming the victims,” said Thompson, who, as The Washington Post notes, helped pass a 2020 law requiring Florida schools to teach about the 1920 massacre, in which a white mob killed dozens of Black residents of Ocoee, Florida, in Election Day violence. (Manny Diaz, Florida's education commissioner, praised the changes, saying that “this is something that is going to set the norm for standards in other states.”)

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The new standards come as DeSantis, a contender for the 2024 Republican nomination, escalates his war on so-called “woke” education, which has included book bans, the rejection of an Advanced Placement course on African American studies, and the passage of the Stop WOKE Act, which prohibits the instruction of material that could make someone feel “guilt, anguish or any form of psychological stress.” His concern for the possible “anguish” of Florida students does not seem to extend to Black students, who could be forced to learn about the supposed “benefit” of slavery, nor does it seem to extend to LGBTQ kids and their families, who have also been targeted in his battle. DeSantis expanded his “Don’t Say Gay” law this year, and the Florida Board of Education voted Wednesday for rules that took it even further — including by barring teachers from asking students their preferred pronouns. Diaz said the move would protect kids from “unwelcome influences and indoctrination," praising DeSantis, the legislation, and the board for what he described in a statement as their “unwavering commitment to the health, wellbeing and safety of our students.” But, as critics charged, the rules constituted an escalation in the “politically-motivated war on parents, students, and educators” in Florida. “Our students deserve classrooms where all families are treated with the respect they deserve and all young people are welcomed,” Jennifer Solomon, Equality Florida Parents & Families Support Manager, said in a statement Wednesday. “Instead, the DeSantis Administration continues to wield the state against us.”

“Stop turning our kids’ classrooms into political battlefields to score cheap points,” Solomon continued.

But DeSantis, of course, shows no sign of stopping: His relentless culture war helped lift him to national prominence, and he has made it his central — nay, his only — pitch to GOP voters in his sputtering presidential campaign. “We’ve made the state of Florida the place where woke goes to die,” he said at a recent campaign event. “And now, it is our mission as Americans to ensure that in January 2025…we leave woke ideology in the dustbin of history where it belongs.”