I have repeatedly communicated my conviction that racism is the root cause of America’s polarization. That root cause may be exacerbated by the other issues we address, but eventually, the racist roots become too obvious to ignore.
That the Republican war on “woke” is a barely-veiled attack on racial and gender equity has been fairly obvious for some time. In Ron DeSantis’ Florida, the determination to rewrite history and privilege White Supremacy has become impossible to ignore.
The Florida Board of Education approved new state social studies standards on Wednesday, including standards for African American history, civics and government, American history, and economics. Critics immediately called out the middle school instruction in African American history that includes “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” (p. 6). They noted that describing enslavement as offering personal benefits to enslaved people is outrageous.
But that specific piece of instruction in the 216-page document is only a part of a much larger political project.
Taken as a whole, the Florida social studies curriculum describes a world in which the white male Founders of the United States embraced ideals of liberty and equality—ideals it falsely attributes primarily to Christianity rather than the Enlightenment—and indicates the country’s leaders never faltered from those ideals. Students will, the guidelines say, learn “how the principles contained in foundational documents contributed to the expansion of civil rights and liberties over time” (p. 148) and “analyze how liberty and economic freedom generate broad-based opportunity and prosperity in the United States” (p. 154).
The new guidelines emphasize that slavery was common around the globe. Worse, “they credit white abolitionists in the United States with ending it (although in reality the U.S. was actually a late holdout).” They teach that slavery in the U.S. was really an outgrowth of “Afro-Eurasian trade routes” and that the practice “was utilized in Asian, European, and African cultures,” –with emphasis on “systematic slave trading in Africa.”
Then the students move on to compare “indentured servants of European and African extraction” (p. 70) before learning about overwhelmingly white abolitionist movements to end the system.
In this account, once slavery arrived in the U.S., it was much like any other kind of service work: slaves performed “various duties and trades…(agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation).” (p. 6) (This is where the sentence about personal benefit comes in.) And in the end, it was white reformers who ended it.
Richardson notes that Florida’s Rightwing curriculum presents human enslavement as just one type of labor system, “a system that does not, in this telling, involve racism or violence.”
Indeed, racism is presented only as “the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping on individual freedoms.” This is the language of right-wing protesters who say acknowledging white violence against others hurts their children, and racial violence is presented here as coming from both Black and white Americans, a trope straight out of accounts of white supremacists during Reconstruction (p. 17). To the degree Black Americans faced racial restrictions in that era, Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans did, too (pp. 117–118).
Those who constructed this curriculum evidently had a problem fitting the violence of Reconstruction into their whitewashed version of U.S. history so, according to Richardson, they didn’t bother. They simply included a single entry in which an instructor is told to “Explain and evaluate the policies, practices, and consequences of Reconstruction (presidential and congressional reconstruction, Johnson’s impeachment, Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, opposition of Southern whites to Reconstruction, accomplishments and failures of Radical Reconstruction, presidential election of 1876, end of Reconstruction, rise of Jim Crow laws, rise of Ku Klux Klan)” (p. 104).
There’s more, and you really need to click through and read the post in its entirety, but Richardson sums up this educational travesty with a powerful indictment:
All in all, racism didn’t matter to U.S. history, apparently, because “different groups of people ([for example] African Americans, immigrants, Native Americans, women) had their civil rights expanded through legislative action…executive action…and the courts.”
The use of passive voice in that passage identifies how the standards replace our dynamic and powerful history with political fantasy. In this telling, centuries of civil rights demands and ceaseless activism of committed people disappear. Marginalized Americans did not work to expand their own rights; those rights “were expanded.” The actors, presumably the white men who changed oppressive laws, are offstage.
And that is the fundamental story of this curriculum: nonwhite Americans and women “contribute” to a country established and controlled by white men, but they do not shape it themselves.
That is the “fundamental story” that MAGA folks want American children to believe. Anything else is “CRT.”