Florida’s Black history standards are even worse than reported

OPINION: While critics have singled out the part of Florida’s social studies standards referencing the “benefits of slavery," theGrio found numerous examples of miseducation embedded throughout the curriculum.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio. 

Florida’s Black history curriculum is even worse than reported

If you’re Black, you’ve been here before. 

Aside from sitting through countless classes in which a social studies teacher valorizes the men and women who reduced your ancestors to chattel, every Black person has been pulled aside by a well-meaning white person who wants to flaunt their rudimentary knowledge of Black history. It usually happens on MLK Day or at the office Juneteenth celebration, when Caroline proudly asks, “Did you know” a Black history fact that you learned before you could even read. But, to be fair, this isn’t Caroline’s fault…  

White people don’t know anything about Black history. 

Research shows white students generally perform worse than Black students when it comes to African American history. Poll after poll shows that Black Americans are more likely than whites to know that slavery caused the Civil War.  According to a 2016 study, only 8 to 9%  of class time in K-12 social studies classes is devoted to Black history. However, a study of Black History Month activities at K-12 schools found that majority-Black schools are more likely to teach Black history, while majority-white schools are more likely to prioritize “individual achievements over historical barriers.”  Pew Research notes that Black adults are twice as likely to say they learned Black history from family members than in a K-12 classroom. Black college grads are more likely to study ethnic, cultural or gender groups in college compared to white graduates. But here’s the interesting part:

White people think they know history.

White people are more likely than Black people to say they know about the civil rights movement, the Civil War and emancipation and Reconstruction. Perhaps this is why people were shocked when the Florida State Board of Education (which only has one member who actually has experience as an educator) introduced its new social studies curriculum that requires teachers to tell students “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” 

Vice President Kamala Harris decried the state-sanctioned whitewashing. “Adults know what slavery really involved,” Harris told a Jacksonville, Florida crowd. “It involved rape. It involved torture. It involved taking a baby from their mother … [and] some of the worst examples of depriving people of humanity in our world.” Florida’s anti-woke Governor Ron Desantis tried to distance himself from the standards while others have defended the new curriculum standards composed by the state’s African American History Task Force. 

But when theGrio examined the FDOE’s full “African American History Strand,” we discovered that the “trade-school-for-enslaved people” narrative wasn’t even the most egregious part of Florida’s new academic curriculum standards. The state guidelines include multiple examples of historical fiction, including some that perpetuate misconceptions, conservative ideology and long-held white falsehoods about Black history. Many of the requirements simply reflect ahistorical conservative talking points that often are regurgitated whenever someone brings up inequality. 

The individual discrepancies are too numerous to list. To shine a light on the most glaring probably-not-intentional errors, theGrio decided to list the top ten parts of Florida’s miseducation of the white man.

10. The enslaved benefited from slavery

Florida’s white history mandate: The curriculum guide states that children will learn “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Why it’s wrong: Let’s get this one out of the way. Although it is not even close to the worst part of the Sunshine State’s white history program, it reinforces a recurring argument used by slavery apologists–that Black people benefited from being enslaved. 

An African was one of the first to grow wheat in the Americas. Rice, cotton and indigo did not grow in places occupied by white people. It was the expertise of the enslaved that transformed African horticultural knowledge into America’s first cash crops. African architects and bricklayers taught white people how to build homes that could withstand the American climate. Colonizers traveled to West Africa to steal blacksmiths because white people needed to benefit from skills Africans developed before slavery. Onesimus, an enslaved Muslim, introduced inoculation to America. 

There is not a single skill developed during the period of legal, race-based chattel slavery that a free person could not have learned. The American experiment nearly failed, ultimately devolving into cannibalism and welfare, precisely because the first Virginia colonizers were inept at… well, everything needed to survive. They could not farm. They could not build things. They had no skills. 

This narrative also undergirds another argument. People who have only been exposed to whitewashed history, some of whom are Black, actually believe Black people benefited from being introduced to white Jesus. Because of their lack of historical knowledge, they have no clue that the Jamestown settlers reached America two years before King James created a version of the Bible for white people. At least 512,924 Africans were enslaved in America before the King James version was printed in Britain’s North American colonies.

To be fair, the racist belief that enslaved people were unskilled is an ancient European tradition. 

“Do not obtain your slaves from Britain,” warned Roman consul Cicero. “Because they are so stupid and so utterly incapable of being taught that they are not fit to form part of the household of Athens.”

9. Black “patriots” fought in the American Revolution

Florida’s white history mandate: Students are required toexamine the service and sacrifice of African patriots during the Revolutionary Era (e.g., Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, James Armistead Lafayette, 1st Rhode Island Regiment) 

Why it’s wrong: On July 10, 1775, seven days after some white man named George Washington became commander in chief of the disparate colonial militias, the new Continental Army’s recruiters were instructed: “not to enlist…any Negro, or vagabond, or person suspected of being an enemy of the liberty of America….” The actual US Army website notes, “At the start of the war, Washington had been a vocal opponent of recruiting black men, both free and especially slaves.” It wasn’t until the all-white patriots were getting their butts kicked that Washington’s all-white Army welcomed Black soldiers. 

Even still, there isn’t a shred of historical evidence that Crispus Attucks believed in the patriot cause. In fact, he was initially cast as a villain in America’s origin story.  Peter Salem enlisted as an alternative to life as human chattel. When they mention the Rhode Island Regiment, Florida should specify which one. Are they referring to the Black Rhode Islanders in the state’s militia that caused racist Rhode Islanders to repeal the law recruiting slaves and declare “no negro, mulatto and Indian slave, be permitted to enlist?” Perhaps they want students to learn about the Continental Army’s segregated 1st Rhode Island Regiment that reenslaved Black soldiers and refused to compensate them after the war. In the case of Lafayette, the Rhode Island regiment and many others, the new nation reneged on its promise to free him in exchange for his service.  

Florida’s Caucasian Race Theory mischaracterizes Black freedom fighters’ intentions by ascribing free white men’s values to a few cherry-picked Black individuals. The correct way to teach this would be to simply teach the facts.

Approximately five thousand Black men fought for America in the Revolutionary War; more than 20,000 fought against America. Even the Black Loyalists in the American Revolution were not fighting to preserve the British empire. They were fighting for their freedom. 

8. The white people who fought to end slavery:

Florida’s white history mandate: The standards will supposedly teach students about the “political figures who strove to abolish the institution of slavery,” such as Abraham Lincoln. Florida also requires its educators to explain “the desire of the Continental Congress to end the importation of slaves.” George Washington is listed as a “key figure in the quest to end slavery.” 

Why it’s wrong: George Washington never freed an enslaved person a day in his life. While he said things about slavery and wrote some down on paper, Washington never proposed a single piece of legislation, an executive order or a declaration that even sought to abolish slavery. He characterized the whipping of a woman he owned as “very proper” and hunted Ona Judge, a woman who escaped his forced labor camp at Mount Vernon, until the day he died. He died owning 317 enslaved people.

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress temporarily halted the slave trade as a consequence of stopping all trade. Had they desired to end the human trafficking industry, they could have. They did not.

The Lincoln thing is easy. 

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

– Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862

7. But Black people owned slaves, too!

Florida’s white history mandate: “Instruction includes the shift in attitude toward Africans as Colonial America transitioned from indentured servitude to race-based, hereditary slavery (i.e., Anthony Johnson, John Casor). The examples of “specific headright settlers” only lists the Black people who benefited from the colonial policy of giving 50 acres of free land to colonial  human traffickers.

Actual history: Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. So did George Washington and 41 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. But, for some reason, the Florida Dept. of Education only lists Black people as slave owners. 

In 1830, 3,777 free Black people enslaved 12,907 Black people, about one-half of one percent of the 2 million people enslaved in America, according to a study by Black historian Carter G. Woodson. Even in these cases, Woodson notes: “The census records show that the majority of the Negro owners of slaves were such from the point of view of philanthropy. In many instances, the husband purchased the wife, or vice versa … Slaves of Negroes were in some cases, the children of a free father who had purchased his wife. If he did not thereafter emancipate the mother, as so many such husbands failed to do, his own children were born his slaves and were thus reported.”

Headrights was a policy that awarded 50 free acres of stolen land to unskilled settlers for each person they brought to the British colonies. The government handouts were one of many white “privileges” that English colonizers used to build generational wealth by trafficking Black bodies. Florida’s curriculum guide, however, only names Black people as “specific headright settlers .”

6. Negro conservatives

Florida’s white history mandate: Black conservatives Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steel are listed as “political figures who shaped the modern Civil Rights efforts.”

Why it’s wrong: Thomas Howell, a Black conservative economist, and Shelby Steele, a conservative academic and columnist, are not politicians. They are not political figures and have never held elected office. Aside from echoing and cosigning the talking points and values of white conservatives, they have no significant following or impact or even leadership roles in Black-led organizations or institutions. 

There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the existence of differing opinions, even when they represent a tiny sliver of actual Black people. But, if the state of Florida wants to paint Steele and Sowell as representatives of Black thought, then they must acknowledge that Klansmen, segregationists and white supremacists were representing a much larger coalition of racist white people who wanted to withhold Black people’s God-given rights.

5. But slavery existed in every society

Florida’s white history mandate: According to the standards, students will “Examine the condition of slavery as it existed in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe prior to 1619…Instruction includes how trading in slaves developed in African lands (e.g., Benin, Dahomey). Instruction includes the practice of the Barbary Pirates in kidnapping Europeans and selling them into slavery in Muslim countries (i.e., Muslim slave markets in North Africa, West Africa, Swahili Coast, Horn of Africa, Arabian Peninsula, Indian Ocean slave trade). Instruction includes how slavery was utilized in Asian cultures (e.g., Sumerian law code, Indian caste system). Instruction includes the similarities between serfdom and slavery and emergence of the term “slave” in the experience of Slavs. Instruction includes how slavery among indigenous peoples of the Americas was utilized prior to and after European colonization.”

Why it’s wrong: Every Black person has heard a not-so-smart white person use the Caucastic version of this argument. Depending on the person’s ignorance of actual history, they will equate Irish indentured servants, Roman prisoners of war and even debt peonage with America’s race-based, intergenerational, constitutionally enshrined human trafficking system that uses violence or the threat of violence to reduce humans to chattel. 

To be fair, it’s much easier to just call it “slavery.” 

America’s unique form of forced labor was different. While the African participants in the slave trade cannot be held blameless, a system like the one that evolved in and built this country had never existed in the history of the world. The victims were not enemy combatants, debtors or the spoils of war – all of which existed in societies since time immemorial. American-style “slavery” was racially homogenous. It was permanent and perpetually inheritable. And most importantly, it did not exist in Africa or anywhere on the planet until white people showed up.

Slavery is not even part of African American history; it is part of white history. 

4. You can be Black and patriotic… But not both

Florida’s white history mandate: “Students will identify characteristics of responsible citizenship (e.g., peaceable assembly, obeying the law, community involvement). Clarification 2: Students will identify characteristics of irresponsible citizenship (e.g., disorderly assembly, breaking the law).” 

“Students will recognize that the Pledge of Allegiance is an oath that affirms American values and freedom… Students will explain why reciting the Pledge of Allegiance daily is an act of patriotism.”

Why it’s wrong:  Crispus Attucks and Martin Luther King Jr. both engaged in civil disobedience, so apparently, they were not patriots like the rowdy guys from Boston who throw tea parties. The Ku Klux Klan and the White Leagues were really involved in their communities and said the pledge of allegiance before every cross burning. Apparently, in Florida, pledging allegiance to the flag of a country that has never pledged its allegiance to Black people is more patriotic than protesting injustice. 

Go figure. 

3. There’s a lot missing

Florida’s white history mandate: While it is impossible to teach all of Black history, perhaps the most significant thing about Florida’s guidelines is the stuff that is intentionally left out. There is nothing about redlining and how its residual effects still shape the lives of African Americans. There are eight mentions of “race riots” but only three “massacres” and a single “lynching.” 

Floridians will not learn about segregation and Jim Crow when they reach the eighth grade. Even then, those government-backed regulations are only taught as a policy that Black people overcame, not something that still impacts the country today. 

The word “racism” appears once. The phrase “white supremacy” or any of its variations does not appear in the entire guide. 

Why it’s wrong: 

While Florida wants kids to learn how Black people benefited from being enslaved, there is no benchmark that requires students to examine how every white person benefited from living in an economy built on free labor. The curriculum includes a little about the slave trade without mentioning the thousands of Africans who were stolen and kidnapped without the help of Africans. It teaches how “African men, both enslaved and free, participated in the Continental Army,” but not that the majority of Black soldiers in the American Revolution sided with the British. 

More than one benchmark requires students to learn about “Judeo-Christian values and Christianity’s impact on American society” and only lists Black Christian churches, even though scholars estimate that as many as 30 percent of enslaved Africans practiced Islam. The omission leaves students unaware that many of their religious traditions have roots in Africa and the Caribbean, including the ring shout, gospel music and four of the ten largest Christian denominations in the United States. 

They don’t have to tell students that Thomas Jefferson was a racist. But it is malpractice to omit that the same man who wrote “all men are created equal” also noted that “the blacks…are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” No educator should tell students that beloved President Abraham Lincoln was a white supremacist. However, it is also impossible to teach students about Lincoln’s political beliefs and motivations without telling them that he said: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races… [T]here must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” 

Furthermore, how can one teach that America was built on democratic principles if the vast majority of Americans tolerated the treatment of Black Americans? Either they were lying when they pledged their allegiance to a republic with liberty and justice for all, or they believed Black people were justifiably excluded from these values. 

Racism and white supremacy are the only explanations.  

2. Where are all the white people?

Florida’s white history mandate: Aside from evaluating the “opposition of Southern whites to Reconstruction,” here is every mention of white people in the entire curriculum guide:

  • “Instruction includes how collaboration of free blacks, whites, churches and organizations assisted in the Underground Railroad”
  • “Instruction includes how whites who supported Reconstruction policies for freed blacks after the Civil War (white southerners being called scalawags and white northerners being called carpetbaggers) were targeted.” 
  • “Instruction includes the influence of white and black political leaders who fought on behalf of African Americans in state and national legislatures and courts.” 
  • “Assess the building of coalitions between African Americans, whites, and other groups in achieving integration and equal rights.”

Why it’s wrong: The entire curriculum perpetuates the misbegotten, ahistorical narrative that most white people were interested in freedom, liberty and justice for Black people. That is not a myth; it is a lie. 

Even if only a tiny minority of white people committed all the violence, inhumanity and injustices levied against Black Americans, it could not have continued if the vast majority of white people didn’t allow it. If most white Americans wanted to ban slavery, the nation wouldn’t have endured the bloodiest war in the history of this continent. If white northerners objected to racial apartheid laws, it wouldn’t have spread to the South after the Civil War. Most white Americans thought civil rights demonstrations were “not justified.” Eighty-five percent felt “ the demonstrations by Negroes on civil rights hurt …the advancement of Negro rights.”

Of course, Florida educators probably understand that any mention of whiteness is always accompanied by the Pavlovian retort, “Not all white people.” But according to the state of Florida, it’s clear who was doing all the enslaving, raping, murdering, lynching and withholding of rights:

No white people.

1. It makes white people comfortable. 

Florida’s white history mandate: No history course can teach everything. The “African American History Strand” is just one of eleven strands, making up about 9.2 percent of the entire social studies curriculum. There is a civics strand, a world history strand, psychology, financial history and even Holocaust education. 

Why it’s wrong:  In 2019, Florida’s public schools were 37.4 percent white, 37.4 percent Hispanic and 21.2 percent Black. 

Not only are non-white taxpayers funding a disproportionately white version of history, but they are paying to whitewash their own. Meanwhile, white Floridians who want to learn more about their history and culture can take an Advanced Placement course in European History, German Language and Culture, French Language and Culture, Italian Language and Culture or United States History. Even those not necessarily interested in white history can enroll in the AP Chinese Language and Culture, Spanish Language and Culture, Spanish Literature and Culture, and Japanese Language and Culture. 

AP African American Studies is banned in Florida, partly because it makes white people uncomfortable. Florida’s STOP WOKE Act prohibits classroom instruction that makes white people “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress, because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race.” 

And that’s the entire point.

Like the legislation, the new curriculum standards are for white people. Everyone except white people believes that increased public attention to the history of racism is good for society. While 62% of Black people and 58% of Hispanics want schools to teach children about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism, most white people do not. How history is taught in schools has always given Black people anguish and psychological distress; white people are perfectly comfortable with Black people’s discomfort. 

Maybe white people are too comfortable with their children learning a whitewashed version of history. They can’t imagine the discomfort of being forced to swallow the history of the people who oppressed their ancestors. It’s hard to fathom how uncomfortable it is to watch dead white people get partial credit for Black people’s achievements. Perhaps the lingering effects of slavery wouldn’t persist if it didn’t make white people so comfortable with stealing Black people’s labor. America was comfortable with segregation and Jim Crow. Then again, if inequality made white people “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress,” the entire American entire education wouldn’t be so unequal.

Considering their ignorance of actual history, white people’s hubristic insistence on how our history should be taught is as remarkable as their continued comfort with four centuries of intentional pro-white propaganda. In many ways, the arrogance of racism really is impressive. And again, not all white people are racist.

They may have simply developed skills that, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in September.

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