Bothsiding Slavery and Other DeSantis Post-truth Realities | Opinion

Gov. Ron DeSantis. Photo public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, Ron DeSantis, with a straight face, told reporters he had had nothing to do with the Florida Board of Education’s new curriculum peddling a softer side of slavery. “I wasn’t involved with it. I didn’t do it … It was not anything that was done politically.”

Insert eye roll here. It was anything but apolitical. All seven members of Florida’s Board of Education are appointed to four-year terms by the governor, and DeSantis’ attempts to restructure society through educational control and censorship are legion.

Did DeSantis momentarily forget his relentless “anti-woke” drive to dictate classroom instruction? Is education in Florida so abysmal that Floridians can’t see the connection between his endless “Stop Woke” initiatives targeting minorities, and his latest attempt to re-write their history?

Political Targeting and Gaslighting are DeSantis Specialties

DeSantis, campaigning for president on a promise to “destroy leftism,” has targeted minorities at unprecedented levels. Civil rights are so tenuous in Florida that the NAACP, Human Rights Campaign, League of United Latin American Citizens, and Equality Florida have each issued travel and relocation advisories warning blacks, gays, and immigrants in Florida to take extra safety precautions.

DeSantis’ claim that his hand-picked Education Board acted independent of him is risible. Seven months before the new standards were released, DeSantis rejected a high school Advanced Placement African-American course, claiming it was “woke” and lacked “educational value.” Two months before the latest standards were announced, DeSantis signed a bill into law that bans diversity, equity, and inclusion programs from Florida’s public colleges and universities.

When questioned, DeSantis first deflected, then explained how Florida’s new classes will teach that slavery gave slaves skills they could use “later in life.” “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.”

Suggesting that enslaved people were learning a trade that could personally benefit them “later in life” boldly erases yet another fundamental and horrific truth about slavery: enslavement nearly always lasted until the enslaved person died.

DeSantis, who expanded “Don’t Say Gay” to all grades in Florida, including high school, is obsessed with what he calls “woke indoctrination” in schools. His same Education Board has repeatedly rejected mathematics and social studies textbooks for public schools, championing the far-right book banning craze. Florida now ranks second — only behind much-larger Texas, in the number of books banned to date. As of February, Florida had banned a hard total of 566 books. For perspective, Oklahoma, ranked as the nation’s 4th worst book-banner, banned 43.

DeSantis dismisses alarm at Florida’s book bans as “a leftist hoax,” the same thing he calls climate change. It doesn’t take a calculator to understand that Florida’s 566 banned books greatly exceed all other states’ except Texas’. Perhaps math in Florida, like American history, is also a matter of perspective.

Slavery Benefitted the Enslaved and Other Post-truths

Florida’s Board of Education now mandates that students be taught, among other things, that enslaved people “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Under the new curriculum, Florida teachers must also deliver false equivalencies — between slavery and serfdom, offense and defense — as they teach that historical massacres of black people in America were examples of “violence perpetrated against and by African Americans.” 

One such massacre occurred in 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma when a white mob destroyed more than 35 blocks of nascent black wealth. One hundred years later, America’s black Wall Street has yet to re-materialize. 

Categorizing this event under “violence by and against” African Americans is a shameful stab at bothsidesism. Blurring the lines between criminal offense and defense is always an attempt to reduce accountability.  

Criminal law recognizes that defending your family against a marauding band of arsonists frothing at the mouth isn’t legally equivalent to starting the fire. Under Florida’s “stand your ground” laws, long championed by DeSantis, Tulsa’s black residents could have pre-emptively macheted every white person who approached, given rampant lynchings and racial violence of the time. They didn’t. The terror came to them.

Slaughtering hundreds of black people who were financially successful against all odds, wiping out legacies of black enterprise that could have traced a different economic trajectory for black America, should never be minimized or mis-categorized. Aside from lying, false equivalencies erase historical context and permit conservatives to conveniently question why black Americans still struggle under economic opportunity that only appears to be facially equal.

Like Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” defense of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, bothsiding slavery is an attempt to defend the indefensible. In a post-truth political climate where alternative facts challenge the rule of law, it’s hard to say what’s more dangerous: DeSantis trying to re-write American history, or DeSantis claiming he had nothing to do with it.

Sabrina Haake is a 25-year litigator specializing in 1st and 14th Amendment defense. Her columns appear in OutSFL, Chicago Tribune, Salon, State Affairs, and Howey Politics. She and her wife split their time between South Florida and Chicago. Follow her on substack.


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