The Right’s New Priority: Justifying Slavery

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

By Keya Vakil

July 26, 2023

2024 presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis has defended Florida’s new Black History curriculum, which directs educators to teach that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” 

Did slavery have benefits for Black people? 

Some leading figures on the right seem to think so. 

Nearly 160 years after slavery was abolished in the United States, a Republican candidate for president and conservative media figures are arguing that being enslaved may have benefited some Black people who “developed skills” while being treated as property instead of human beings. 

The politician in question is Florida governor and 2024 presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis, who has in recent days defended his state’s new Black history education standards, which include the statement for middle school instruction that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

The new curriculum, which was approved by DeSantis’ hand-picked Florida Board of Education last week, has been widely criticized by Black Americans, historians, academic experts, and Democrats as whitewashing American history.

But Fox News has prominently defended the new guidelines on their major shows for the better part of a week and DeSantis has also stood by the effort. 

“They’re probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life,” DeSantis said on Friday in response to a reporter’s question about the new curriculum.

At the same time, however, DeSantis tried to create some distance between himself and the standards, saying he wasn’t involved in creating the new teaching materials. But the standards were released after a much-publicized and successful effort by DeSantis to overhaul the state’s education laws in order to restrict how teachers can talk about race and racism. 

“Governor DeSantis started this fire with the bill that he signed and now he doesn’t want to take responsibility for whatever is done in the aftermath of it,” Chris Christie, DeSantis’ fellow GOP presidential primary opponent, said Sunday on Face the Nation. “‘I didn’t do it’ and ‘I’m not involved in it’ are not the words of leadership.”

Vice President Kamala Harris also criticized the new curriculum, emphasizing the atrocities associated with slavery.

“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,” she said at a speech in Jacksonville on Friday. “It involved subjecting to people the requirement that they would think of themselves and be thought of as less than human.”

While DeSantis has faced a barrage of criticism and has found himself earnestly debating the potential benefits of being enslaved, many figures in right-wing media have come to his defense, insisting that the curriculum doesn’t say what it literally says. 

“They are teaching how Black people develop skills during slavery in some instances that can be applied for their own personal benefit,” Fox News host Jesse Watters said Friday on his prime time show, just moments after saying, “No one is arguing slaves benefited from slavery. No one is saying that. It’s not true.”

The shortcomings of that argument were picked apart by Marvin Dunn, a professor emeritus at Florida International University. 

“One of the main things about slavery, beyond the physical damage that it did to people of so many generations, was that it prevented people from becoming what they could have become,” Dunn told the Washington Post. “So what if you became a carpenter or a blacksmith or a good maid? Your chances of that were not determined by you, it was determined by somebody else. That’s not a rationalization for enslavement.”

Watters again defended the curriculum on his shows on both Monday and Tuesday, while insisting at the same time that “no one’s saying slaves benefited from slavery.”

 

His fellow Fox News colleague Greg Gutfeld took another approach to defending the standards, noting on Monday that Jewish people “had to be useful” in order to survive concentration camps during the Holocaust.

“Did you ever read Man’s Search for Meaning?” Gutfeld asked his Jewish colleague, Jessica Tarlov, after she made a connection between slavery and the Holocaust. “Vik Frankl talks about how you had to survive in a concentration camp by having skills. You had to be useful. Utility! Utility kept you alive!”

Gutfeld’s remarks have drawn criticism from the Auschwitz Museum and caused consternation within Fox. 

Another line of defense used by Watters and other supporters has been to point out that the state offered up 16 examples of formerly enslaved people “parlaying” skills they learned as slaves into jobs later in life. But a Tampa Bay Times report found that some of those people were never enslaved in the first place, while others learned their skills after escaping slavery. 

The curriculum has also received criticism for other inclusions, such as a directive to study “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans,” including the “1906 Atlanta Race Riot, 1919 Washington, D.C. Race Riot, 1920 Ocoee Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Massacre and the 1923 Rosewood Massacre,” all of which were violent race riots carried out by white people against innocent Black people. 

DeSantis and his allies in the media have also defended the curriculum by claiming that it was created by a 13-member “work group,” with input from an African American history task force. Two members of that work group, William Allen, and Frances Presley Rice, have publicly stood by the new standards. 

“Florida students deserve to learn how slaves took advantage of whatever circumstances they were in to benefit themselves and the community of African descendants,” they said in a statement.

But neither Rice nor Allen are neutral or apolitical. Rice is the co-founder and chairman of the National Black Republican Association and as the newsletter Progress Report reports, she has a long history of expressing and amplifying extreme and at-times offensive views. This includes the publication of a magazine with conspiratorial, far-right headlines such as “Democrats embrace their child molesters” and “Democrats wage war on God.” 

Allen, meanwhile, is a conservative political scientist who worked for the Reagan administration and currently serves as a scholar at a right-wing religious public policy think tank. 

The controversy surrounding the new curriculum is just the latest example of blowback against DeSantis’ efforts to overhaul Florida’s public school education system in order to censor the teaching of US history and racism. Earlier this year, the state rejected an Advanced Placement course on African American studies, saying it “significantly lacks educational value.” 

DeSantis has also made it easier for a small number of politically ideological parents to request books be banned from classrooms and school libraries for all children. This has led to dozens of books being pulled from school shelves across the state, including at least 100 in Clay County, Florida following complaints by a single person.

Given DeSantis’ extreme ideological views and his attacks on public education over the past two years, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that he and some other conservatives have reached the point of debating whether slavery had “personal benefit[s]” for Black people. But it’s no less absurd, as Will Hurd, a former member of Congress and one of DeSantis’ opponents in the 2024 Republican presidential primary field, pointed out. 

“Slavery wasn’t a jobs program that taught beneficial skills,” Hurd said in a tweet on Friday. “It was literally dehumanizing and subjugated people as property because they lacked any rights or freedoms.”

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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