A Dream and a Lie: Ron DeSantis’s Twisted Race Pedagogy

A Dream and a Lie: Ron DeSantis’s Twisted Race Pedagogy

A Dream and a Lie: Ron DeSantis’s Twisted Race Pedagogy

The ultimate aim of  the Florida governor’s education platform is to depoliticize actually existing Black history

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s legislative crusade against Black history in Florida’s K-12 curriculum is nothing short of a frontal assault on Black Americans’ sense of reality and identity. History in American education is not, as DeSantis suggests, an impartial assemblage of the “cut and dried” facts. It is, rather, the way we test and refine various narratives of our collective identity and national aspirations—and, crucially, interrogate the enabling fictions that make up the American dream. James Baldwin underlined the central fact that DeSantis’s campaign against Black learning sidesteps during his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley Jr. at the University of Cambridge when he declared, “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Fifty-eight years later, Ta-Nehisi Coates reiterated the same point in his landmark book Between the World and Me: “Historians conjured the dream.”

By forbidding instruction in the country’s actual history, via everything from Florida’s ban on critical race theory to the abandonment of advanced AP classes in African American history, DeSantis has reversed this foundational insight, conjuring the dream as state-sanctioned knowledge. Florida schools now operate under the mission to present students with a largely anodyne, conflict-free, and mythologized account of racial history as fact—and as the foundation of their civic identity.

This ideologically driven agenda gives the lie to DeSantis’s frequent insistence that Florida’s education standards “require teaching Black history.” In point of fact, the standards require no such thing; they categorize African American history as an elective. In other words, while schools may be mandated to offer such courses, no student is required to take them. This procedural dodge, like so many of DeSantis’s pronouncements, is meant to preemptively disarm criticism: If he can make it seem that African American history is already required for all Florida students, the advocates of the “woke” sensibility DeSantis reviles will appear to be distorting the truth in the alleged service of their ideological agendas.

That was the whole point of DeSantis’s high-profile press conference on the state’s teaching standards earlier this month, where he denounced the case made by his detractors as a “hoax.” “They will say things like ‘Florida does not want students to know that there was slavery in the United States,’ which is just an absolute lie,” DeSantis said. “Florida law does the opposite.”

Well, not so much. It’s true that a 1994 state law requires Florida’s public schools to teach African American history, including the “enslavement experience, abolition, and the history and contributions of Americans of the African diaspora to society.” Florida’s Department of Education lists six African American history courses that meet the requirements of the 1994 law, but none of these courses fall under the heading of “core-curricula”—the body of classes students must take in order to graduate from high school.

DeSantis is correct when he says that students will learn about enslavement if they enroll in the course. However, thanks to his moral-panic legislation specifying which versions of Black history pass muster in state schools, he has also ensured that students will not learn that white people were responsible for it, or that white people benefited from it and produced white children who inherited their wealth from the plunder of enslaved Black Americans. The upshot is a mind-bendingly ahistorical proposition: White supremacy did not empower white people with the belief they were sanctioned to enslave Black people. Rather, American racism was an outlying and irrational product of now-outmoded pseudoscientific beliefs and attitudes, which no longer play a central role in American race relations, if indeed they ever did.

As DeSantis explained, this flattened-out account of the country’s racial past was the objective behind his signature “Stop WOKE” legislation, HB 7, which he signed into law last year. “What we did in that bill,” DeSantis explained, “we required the State of Florida schools to provide instruction about prejudice and racism through American history.” He neglected to add, however, that the bill charges educators to handle this material under the prime directive of guaranteeing that no white student’s feelings are hurt—or, as the bill’s sweeping language has it, to ensure students do not “feel guilt, anguish, or psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.”

What students are clearly empowered to feel, however, is that the whole awkward business of American slavery and its apartheid aftermath is firmly embalmed in the past: After stipulating that it’s permissible for Florida classrooms to explore “how the individual freedoms of persons have been infringed by slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination,” the Stop WOKE Act rushes to stress that students should also learn “how recognition of these freedoms has overturned these unjust laws.” Note first that the abstract formulation here absurdly bypasses the explicitly racialized foundation of slavery; Black people were not dispossessed, exploited, and killed by slavery so much as “the individual freedom of persons” was, most unfortunately, “infringed.” And likewise, Black Americans were not the agents of their own liberation under the demise of slavery and segregation; no, the impersonal and abstract “recognition of these freedoms” was the efficient cause here, a bloodless account of how history actually unfolds that would make even Hegel blush.

We are, in short, in the pedagogic world of right-wing agitprop—which is the ultimate aim of DeSantis’s education platform: to depoliticize actually existing Black history in the name of preserving the dream’s core ideological precept of white innocence.

It’s not hard to work out the implications of this counter-historical curriculum in the arena of today’s multifront campaign to restore white impunity. By this same impersonal libertarian logic, white men can intentionally hunt and shoot down a Black teenager—as Florida vigilante George Zimmerman did when he gunned down Trayvon Martin in 2011—without white supremacy playing any part in the adjudication of the gunman’s legal culpability. The ideological focus on “individual freedoms” will likewise automatically transpose the acute wealth gap separating white and Black America into the high-libertarian scheme of proper saving and investment—as opposed to the legacy of system in which Black Americans were themselves designated property, and thus denied fundamental human rights of self-determination and unobstructed social mobility. In short, students will be encouraged to believe that Black subjugation, the torture of the whip, and the hell of poverty were—and are—necessary torments that Black Americans simply must overcome in order to finally realize for themselves the spoils of the American dream.

In line with all this reasoning, the only time Florida’s social studies standards refer to white people as a race is to exalt white allies in the civil rights movement, advising teachers to have their classrooms “assess the building of coalitions between African Americans, whites, and other groups in achieving integration and equal rights.” In other words, while the mere mention of past white culpability for, and complicity in, American slavery and its legacies would create severe emotional distress and dislocation for white students, they still can claim the heroic narrative of playing a leading role in dismantling the outmoded regime of Black repression—even though this, too, is an assertion squarely at odds with actual history.

Add to this DeSantis’s repudiation of AP Black history instruction for alleged “indoctrination” in Black resistance and critical race theory and you have a version of Black history that dogmatically minimizes Black experience and historical agency. This vision is part of DeSantis’s broader effort to adopt the teaching standards of fundamentalist Hillsdale College in Florida schools, via public-funded charter institutions. DeSantis’s alliance with Hillsdale, indeed, predates his governorship, going back to his tenure in Congress. Hillsdale now has the authority to review Florida’s middle-school civics curricula in conjunction with the commissioner of education and the Koch-funded Bill of Rights Institute. Another group charged with such reviews is the Florida Center for Joint Citizenship, which is a partner of the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida, schools that both receive generous Koch funding.

The tight network of right-wing policy entrepreneurship supplies the rhetorical and intellectual artillery for DeSantis’s school wars. You can see its influence, for example, in the way the Florida Department of Education took issue with the AP course’s proposed inclusion of the Movement for Black Lives in its instruction materials. Department officials claimed that the aims of Black Lives Matter include “eliminating prisons and jails, ending pretrial detention, and concluding ‘the war on Black trans, queer, gender non-conforming, and intersex people.’”

It’s also why DeSantis took up the same rallying cry at his March 8 press conference. “You just tell me whether you think this is something that is appropriate for an African American history course,” DeSantis asked, reading aloud this description of the now-rejected Queer Studies unit the original AP Black history framework: “We have to encourage and develop practices whereby queerness isn’t surrendered to the status quo of race, class, gender and sexuality. It means building forms of queerness that reject the given realities of the government and the market.”

While such language may be imprecise and rhetorically overblown, the objectives in question are indeed of a piece with the struggle for racial justice, as any number of queer Black Americans will readily attest. But the whole point of DeSantis’s curriculum-scrubbing agenda is to deny such people a voice, a hearing in public life—or, indeed, an identity.

Neither they, nor the larger narrative of Black liberation, have any place in the state’s own preferred indoctrination narrative, grounded in the sacred shibboleths of individualist achievement. Florida law requires the State Board of Education to develop or adopt “Stories of Inspiration”—a curriculum designed to “inspire future generations through motivating stories of American history that demonstrate important life skills and the principles of individual freedom that enabled persons to prosper even in the most difficult circumstances.”

And while queerness has no place in the DeSantis-ized version of Black history, laissez-faire capitalism most assuredly does, in spite of capitalism’s largely adversarial role in the Black freedom struggle. The African American History task force, an organization created by the 1994 law to bolster the effort to ensure the “history, culture, experiences, and contributions of African Americans” is taught in Florida’s K-12, ensured that the state’s African American Instructional Standards are teeming with the fables of Black capitalism. The task force enjoins teachers to have students “analyze the advantages of capitalism and the free market in the United States over government-controlled economic systems,” while also rehearsing the dogmas of classical laissez-faire economics: “Students will analyze the disadvantages of authoritarian control over the economy (e.g., communism and socialism) in generating broad-based economic prosperity for their population.”

The libertarian civics mandate yields a prim and didactic vision of Black success that is quite something, but a far cry from history:

The economic and human resources of African Americans in the United States of America are significant. African Americans, since Madame C.J. Walker, have been millionaires and today there are many millionaire athletes, businesspeople, performers, and T.V[.] personalities like Oprah Winfrey. The exploration of economic contributions is important in understanding the roles of African Americans in American society.

There you have it: The Black struggle for justice, freedom, and equality culminates in the billionaire figure of Oprah Winfrey, a perfect market avatar of the American dream of individualist uplift. The version of Black history that Florida students will now be encountering in schools overseen by fundamentalist ideologues calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s grim assessment of how totalitarian propaganda prompts people “to believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” That’s yet another lesson that won’t be taught in a Florida school.

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