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Why Ron DeSantis’s Florida slavery curriculum is problematic

  • Published on
    August 7, 2023
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    Law & Policy
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Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor and a potential Republican presidential candidate, is facing mounting criticism for newly approved curriculum guidelines in the state. These guidelines instruct students to learn that enslaved people “developed skills” that could be “applied for personal benefit.”

DeSantis defended these guidelines in an interview with NBC News, stating, “That means they developed skills in spite of slavery, not because of slavery. It was them showing resourcefulness and then using those skills once slavery ended.”

The Independent reports,

Mr DeSantis had previously stated he “wasn’t involved” with the guidelines approved by the state’s appointed Board of Education. He said the standards are “probably going to show some of the folks” – enslaved people – “that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life.”

The problem with revisionist history

As critics point out, this narrative belies the harsh realities of chattel slavery—a brutal system that deprived millions of their freedom, autonomy, and lives. Slaves were owned as property, subjected to violence, and had no agency to “parlay” skills into personal benefit.

Educational content producer PragerU, which was just approved as an official vendor by the Florida Department of Education, is also facing scrutiny for its portrayal of Black abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass in an animated lesson. In a video, Douglass is depicted as suggesting that the founding fathers had to “compromise” on slavery during the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. Douglass seems to condone this move though he was “Not OK with slavery.”

This revisionist approach should raise alarm bells, as it softens the enormity of the injustices suffered by enslaved people which is not only historically inaccurate but also absolves those responsible for these acts of the full weight of their accountability.

Addressing modern slavery requires understanding historical slavery

Vice President Kamala Harris has roundly rejected the move and invitations to speak with DeSantis. “There is no roundtable, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact: there were no redeeming qualities of slavery.”

We fully agree.

Freedom United uses the umbrella term of “modern slavery” to refer to human trafficking, forced or bonded labor, debt bondage, child slavery, commercial sexual exploitation, forced conscription, and forced marriage – human rights abuses that have been criminalized the world over.

This does not mean, however, that we wish to erase the history of slavery or suggest that modern slavery is identical to appalling practices that took place in centuries past. Laws have been passed to abolish slavery, but the systems of discrimination and exploitation that started slavery in the first place haven’t been eradicated.

When we use the term “modern slavery,” what we are arguing is that we see parallels in what we refer to as slavery over time. Modern slavery is – like slavery centuries ago – grounded in taking advantage of those who hold less power. This means marginalized communities around the world, racial and ethnic minorities, women and girls, the poor, migrant workers, persecuted minorities, the disabled, and others deemed less powerful are made more vulnerable to being exploited by others as a result of barriers that prevent people from accessing their rights.

Learn more about the relevance of historical slavery today

Systemic racism, xenophobia, colorism, and prejudice – which are not new phenomena — all play a role in these injustices. The fact that many societies accept or are indifferent to these forms of discrimination demonstrates that roots drivers of power imbalances – factors that can contribute to modern slavery and other forms of oppression – have yet to be fully reconciled with, especially in the United States. Rewriting history in this manner risks perpetuating patterns of injustice and exploitation.

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Naomi Pullen
Naomi Pullen
8 months ago

This is a really important discussion. History of slavery must be kept visible. In Australia for example it has been kept hidden so successfully that some people in Australia do not know or understand that there was an open secret of enslaving First Nations people in this country, Stolen generations of children who were put to work, stolen wages of people who were promised wages, people stolen to work on sugar cane fields in Nth Qld in Australia. There is a lot of hidden slavery our history.

Juan José Castaño
Juan José Castaño
8 months ago

I can’t see any point in revising history to make it look like our ancestors never did anything wrong. I am not responsible for my grandparents’ actions, beliefs, opinions or values, much less for those of previous ancestors. I do not need to deny the atrocities that my ancestors committed centuries or decades ago to feel that I am a good person, as long as I don’t commit the same atrocities and try to fight injustices whose origin is the way of thinking that led to those atrocities in the past.

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