Jul 27, 2023

Florida's new African American studies curriculum.

Florida's new African American studies curriculum.
Florida Governor and Republican presidential nominee Ron DeSantis is under fire for his state's new social studies curriculum. Image: Gage S

Plus, a preview of tomorrow's Friday edition.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 14 minutes.

The controversial new curriculum that was just released in Florida. Plus, an "Under the radar" story about the 2020 election and a preview of tomorrow's Friday edition.

UFO hearings.

First, don't forget to come to our event! Second, yesterday, former U.S. Air Force intelligence official David Grusch testified before Congress that federal officials are concealing the existence of UFOs — and have been for decades. We previously covered Grusch's claims in a YouTube video, but we're going to dedicate tomorrow's Friday edition to covering his testimony, under oath, along with two other witnesses. 

Quick hits.

  1. In a surprising development, the judge overseeing Hunter Biden's plea agreement upended what was expected to be a routine hearing by raising questions about the deal. Biden ultimately changed his plea to not guilty to the charges, and the two sides will now meet to discuss the agreement. (The hearing)
  2. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) froze for about 20 seconds mid-sentence during a news conference, appearing unable to speak before being escorted away. The apparent health episode has raised questions about his fitness for office. (The video)
  3. The Fed raised its target interest rate another 0.25 percentage points, bringing it to the highest level in 22 years. With inflation receding, the Fed is expected to raise rates one more time before pausing. (The hike)
  4. The Israeli Supreme Court set a September preliminary hearing date for a case challenging the constitutionality of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul bill. (The date)
  5. Seven major automakers unveiled a plan to build an electric vehicle-charging network that would rival Tesla’s and nearly double the number of fast-charging stations in the U.S. (The plan)

Today's topic.

Florida's African American studies curriculum. Last week, the Florida Board of Education approved a controversial new curriculum to teach African American history.

The 216-page document is part of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act (commonly called the Stop W.O.K.E. Act), which was passed in 2022 and regulates the way race and gender can be taught in the classroom. Among other things, the law prohibits classroom teachings that make students feel guilt over past actions by members of their racial group.

Following the bill's passage, Florida's Board of Education revisited the state’s social studies curriculum to be sure it complied with the new law. It leaned on the expertise of a 13-person workgroup of educators, six of whom were African American, and held public meetings while developing the social studies standards. Specific to the controversy was one section in the lessons for sixth to eighth graders in the African American studies section of the social studies curriculum.

That section tells instructors to “examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves (e.g., agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation).” In a "benchmark clarification," the instruction adds that this should include “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

On the whole, the curriculum mentions slaves or slavery around 200 times. It encompasses a few other issues that have drawn attention, like framing slavery as a longstanding global practice that preceded European colonization of the Americas, and directing teachers to instruct how slave trading was developed in Africa, how slavery was used in Asian and indigenous American cultures, and how Europeans were also kidnapped by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery in Muslim countries.

When the curriculum was released, it was immediately and forcefully panned by teachers' groups, the NAACP, and Vice President Kamala Harris.

"Just yesterday in the state of Florida, they decided middle school students will be taught that enslaved people benefited from slavery… There is a national agenda afoot…that there are many aspects of our history that some would like to overlook, erase or at least deny," the vice president said. "This is unnecessary to debate whether enslaved people benefited from slavery. Are you kidding me?"

Some of the scholars and board members behind the curriculum have since defended it.

“Florida is focused on teaching true and accurate African American history. If you actually read our standards you’d know that,” Manny Diaz Jr., Florida’s education commissioner, said in response to criticism from Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. Gov. DeSantis, meanwhile, defended the curriculum while also telling a reporter he wasn't personally involved in the change and directing questions to the state Board of Education.

While the curriculum is a local issue in Florida, it touches on a national movement to re-examine how students are being taught history in K-12 classes. Gov. DeSantis has been at the forefront of this movement since taking office.

Today, we're going to take a look at some commentary from the left and right, then my take. 

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left criticize the curriculum, saying it whitewashes African American history.
  • Some seize on the sections about developing skills and mob violence to argue Florida is teaching a revisionist history that downplays the horrors of slavery.
  • Others argue that the curriculum creates a false equivalence between white supremacy and black resistance to it.

In The Washington post, Eugene Robinson called the curriculum an "obscene revision" of black history.

"Florida’s decision to teach in schools that slavery in this country was of 'personal benefit' to some enslaved people is obscene revisionism. It is like teaching that though Abraham Lincoln might have been assassinated, at least the performance at Ford’s Theatre that night was first-rate," Robinson said. "For those who doubt this obscenity is actually in the curriculum, look no further than Page 6 of Florida’s 2023 academic standards for teaching social studies: 'Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.'"

"On Friday, DeSantis blamed the state Department of Education — 'I wasn’t involved,' he claimed — but also defended the abomination: '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.' Where to begin? I’ll start with my own family history. One of my great-great-grandfathers, enslaved in Charleston, S.C., was indeed compelled to learn to be a blacksmith. But he had no ability to ‘parlay’ anything, because his time and labor were not his own. They belonged to his enslaver. He belonged to his enslaver. To pretend my ancestor was done some sort of favor by being taught a trade ignores the reality of race-based, chattel slavery as practiced in the United States."

In Jacksonville Today, Nikesha Elise Williams said the new standards "eschew context."

"I’ll admit that I was ready to write an eviscerating screed in opposition to Florida’s State Academic Standards for Social Studies for 2023, specifically those regarding the teaching of African American history," Williams said. "However, there’s a whole lot of context missing that makes some of these lessons more revisionist history than incontrovertible fact. In the early grades, there is an emphasis on recognizing and identifying African American artists, inventors, innovators and civil servants and Civil Rights leaders. But being able to identify these key figures without understanding why is like teaching sight words instead of phonics in early reading courses."

"Removing such context and then attempting to equalize the atrocities suffered by enslaved Black people in the American South with the global practice of slavery since Ramses II in Ancient Egypt, or compare slavery to indentured servitude in any way (one a choice, the other forced labor) is an abominable attempt to #MeToo a singular experience whose effects can still be seen and felt around the world, especially in the U.S,” Williams wrote. And “In grades 6-8, slavery in the American South is couched in the rhetoric of economic necessity,” pointing to “westward expansion, the demand for land, and a need for labor, the dehumanization, subjugation, and enslavement of people is justified by capitalism. Do not people matter more than profits? Furthermore, teaching that the skills the enslaved developed had personal ‘benefit’ denies the systematic precision with which the slave trade operated.”

In MSNBC, Keisha N. Blain said the curriculum is a "blatant distortion" of the past.

"Under the leadership of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a presidential candidate who characterizes himself as being on a nationwide crusade against 'wokeness,' Florida has been at the center of an ongoing effort to erase the perspectives of Black people in the classroom — and whitewash American history. In January, the Florida Department of Education rejected a first version of the African American Studies AP course after claiming that it lacked educational value," Blain said. “Florida’s new standards also promote a false equivalency between white supremacist violence and Black militant resistance. By claiming that instruction should include 'acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans,' the Florida Board of Education is complicit in upholding racism and white supremacy.

"The 1921 Tulsa massacre, one of the historical developments highlighted in the new standards, underscores the dangers of conflating white people launching attacks against Black communities with Black people protecting themselves from white people attacking them. The 'against and by' language in the new guidelines implies that the 1921 Tulsa massacre was the result of African American violence, but the historical record reveals that it was one of many examples of white supremacist mob violence."

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right say the left is lying about the curriculum, which gives a holistic look at the history of slavery.
  • Some argue the attacks are "brazenly dishonest" and ignore what the curriculum actually says.
  • Others say the left is simply blowing a single footnote out of proportion.

In National Review, the editors wrote that Florida is right to teach "slaves were more than just passive victims."

Vice President Kamala Harris and others are "lying to the public" about what is taught in schools. The new standards were approved so the state could "free itself from the dictates of the College Board and other national groups pushing left-wing agitprop." They were developed through public meetings and by a diverse 13-member working group "with six African-American members," including "distinguished scholars such as Dr. William B. Allen, professor and dean emeritus at Michigan State and former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.”

"There are 191 items in the curriculum about slavery, segregation, and racism, on required topics such as 'how slave codes resulted in an enslaved person becoming property with no rights' and 'how the demand for slave labor resulted in a large, forced migration' within the United States," the editors said. "One of these 191 items instructs junior-high-school classrooms to 'examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves... and an appended 'Clarification' adds that this should include considering 'how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.' That one sentence is the entire basis for the claim that Florida is somehow teaching that slavery benefited slaves. This is a dishonest smear, and it has nothing to do with promoting an accurate education."

In Townhall, Guy Benson said Harris's attack was "brazenly dishonest."

"Haven't you heard? Ron DeSantis' Florida is teaching students that slavery actually benefited slaves – an authoritarian and racist whitewash of an evil institution. That's the story many on the Left have been indignantly peddling over the last few days, led by Vice President Kamala Harris. She lobbed the allegation on social media, then traveled to Florida to make her point in person. Her point is a repugnant, politically-motivated, racial lie," Benson said. “At National Review, Charles Cooke details what he describes as 'a brazen lie. It’s an astonishing lie. It’s an evil lie. It is so untrue — so deliberately and cynically misleading — that, in a sensible political culture, Harris would be obligated to issue an apology.'”

"Others have noted that the rigorous, comprehensive curriculum was crafted by scholars, including black experts, some of whom have pushed back publicly against the sort of criticism being spearheaded by the vice president," Benson wrote. "The point is not that slavery was a beneficial jobs or skills program for enslaved people. No one is saying that, and no one believes it. The point, made at the margins of a much broader discussion, is that in some cases, slaves exploited their skills for personal benefit, including shedding the shackles of slavery. This minor note shouldn't be over-emphasized in the wider context of slavery, of course, and Florida's curriculum doesn't do that."

In The Dispatch, Nick Catoggio criticized some of DeSantis's actions, but also called on readers to "be fair" to him and evaluate this honestly.

"Is the state of Florida now teaching sixth graders that, ackshually, slavery was good? It is not, and even a cursory skim of the curriculum proves it," he wrote. "I invite you to scroll through pages 3-21 and see for yourself just how unrepresentative the idea of slaves benefiting from slavery is in context. This is no whitewash... Instruction in African American history starts in kindergarten, with an introduction to black inventors and explorers like George Washington Carver. By high school there are no less than 55 separate lessons beginning with slavery before 1619 and concluding with present-day statesmen like Barack Obama, Clarence Thomas, and, er, Kamala Harris."

Yes, "one can understand why skeptics would assume the worst about the favored candidate of the Orbán-curious wanting students to learn that slaves could 'apply for their personal benefit' the skills they gained from slavery," Cattogio said. "But in context, amid scores of lessons detailing centuries of persecution of African Americans, it’s impossible to believe DeSantis’ expert board aimed to whitewash the practice. I suspect the lesson about learning a trade amid horrendous oppression is chiefly a lesson about black Americans’ resilience and a tribute to their indomitability. And, of course, a reminder of how much human potential was exploited by the institution on pain of death."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • DeSantis deserves a lot of criticism for the role he has tried to take in shaping Florida’s education, and I’ve joined in that criticism.
  • However, nearly everything I’ve seen from “the right” here is closer to the truth about this curriculum.
  • On the whole, the left seems to be seizing on one single sentence and blowing it out of proportion, framing an otherwise reasonable and holistic curriculum as something sinister. 

I have been extremely critical of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the role he’s tried to take in shaping his state’s education.

On the whole, I believe DeSantis is attempting to normalize the use of state power to attack his political enemies, is creating broad and unclear laws that govern the classroom, and is promoting the use of state censorship to limit the circulation of books and educational material he does not like. I do not think his tactics of waging a cultural war in the classroom are productive, or good for Florida’s K-12 students, and I've said so repeatedly. I'm grateful that there are many conservatives speaking out about this as well.

So, it may surprise you when I say this: I think "the right" is, well… right. About pretty much everything in this episode.

For a moment, let's just put a pin in the single sentence about "developing skills" that has caused so many uproarious claims about DeSantis inviting the Klu Klux Klan into Florida classrooms. Many other writers have cited Charles C.W. Cooke's piece about this in National Review, and with good reason. Cooke's piece is effective because he helpfully pulls out and lists all 191 references to slavery, slaves, abolitionism, civil rights, and African Americans in the curriculum document in question, then bolds the single reference about slaves developing skills.

The effect, if you read the full list and the entire document, is quite obvious. Florida is not downplaying or whitewashing slavery. It is not framing slavery as something that benefits African Americans. And it is absolutely not ignoring the incredible horrors of slavery, or sending us back to the 19th century, or erasing the voices of the slaves who experienced this horror, or glossing over the black scholars who have commented on it, or obscuring the more modern civil rights activists who attempted to overthrow the systems that came after slavery.

A broad denunciation of slavery is central to the curriculum, plain as day — whether it's through "the overwhelming death rates'' of the practice, or how “Africans resisted slavery,” or “the ramifications of prejudice, racism and stereotyping on individual freedoms,” or how the south “tried to prevent slaves from escaping” or the "harsh conditions" of plantations, or even “the struggles faced by African American women in the 19th century as it relates to issues of suffrage, business and access to education.” The curriculum is thorough and covers a lot of ground.

Of course, it isn't perfect. I'm sure if we took a microscope to every social studies curriculum in every state we could find similar single sentences that raise eyebrows. Though, yes, DeSantis has put Florida under this national microscope by making his education culture war a key part of his 2024 campaign for president.

Still, even the most controversial parts of this curriculum seem to be getting framed by the left in a wholly dishonest way. Is "how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit," a point worth including in African American studies? We could debate that, but I actually think it is! Why not? If anything, such details can (and should) be framed as just another bullet point in the long list of ways African Americans have displayed incredible resilience in the face of the unbelievable horrors our country perpetrated on them for 250 years. Indeed, the unrequited love so many African Americans have for their country is something to be taught, celebrated, and explored. 

I think it is — as others put it — a gross lie to take from this one line that this curriculum is somehow broadly teaching that slavery benefits the enslaved. 

To me, the most offensive parts of the curriculum are actually the ones covered by Keisha N. Blain (under "What the left is saying,"), which reference the "acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans." 

Again, it's all in the framing and how a teacher addresses it, but that sentence certainly reads like a curriculum equating the violence of resistance to slavery to the violence of slavery itself. And I think any curriculum touching on violence perpetrated by African Americans should be carefully taught to frame it as what it was: The predictable resistance that happens when you attempt to rob an entire race of people of their freedom and humanity. Resistance that, however uncomfortable it is to say, was justified in its violence.

But still: These are tiny details in a giant piece of coursework, 99% of which appears unobjectionable to even its staunchest critics, who don’t address anything but two or three sentences in the 216-page document. Ron DeSantis's ill-advised law that attempts to prevent white students from feeling guilty or upset certainly caused this whole fracas, and he deserves criticism for that. But he did not create this lesson plan, and the people who did seem to have put together something I'd be perfectly happy if my own child learned. But I also think in defending the curriculum, many conservatives have undermined their arguments about education in other contexts. 

For instance, National Review argued that, “One of the choices to be made in teaching about a large, complex, and traumatic human event such as American slavery is whether to flatten it into a simple just-so story or provide the detail and context necessary to bring it to life. Just-so stories are fine for introducing history to very young children, but a full education goes further.”

This is, actually, very close to the arguments I’ve made against the way conservatives have suggested we teach slavery, gender, or other controversial issues like “critical race theory” or “trans issues.” That is to say: I agree with National Review’s editors that sixth to eighth graders are capable of grappling with nuance and complexity, and that we should offer them a holistic education by wading into difficult, complicated, or contentious issues. Not by pulling books from public school libraries or limiting what can and can’t be said in the classroom. I wish National Review’s editors and those in DeSantis’s corner would extend this reasoning to other areas beyond the complexities of slavery.

Before passing any judgment of your own, I suggest listening to the people who built the curriculum defend themselves against Harris's attacks. Or simply going and reading it yourself (if you want to spend a few hours doing that, as I did). There is also some well reasoned, helpful criticism, like the one from Nikesha Elise Williams (under “What the left is saying”) that calls out the way this curriculum could separate black history from American history. But on the whole, I think you'll find that the most outlandish things about the curriculum are the claims made against it, not any of the items listed within it.

Your questions, answered.

We're skipping today's reader question to give our main story some extra room to breathe. If you want to ask a question, you can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

In a court filing, Rudy Giuliani admitted to making false statements about two Georgia election workers in the 2020 election while acting as a lawyer for former President Donald Trump. Giuliani is facing a defamation lawsuit brought by Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss, who he accused of mishandling ballots while counting votes in Atlanta. The suit accuses Giuliani of sharing a video that purported to show Freeman and Moss manipulating ballots in the State Farm Arena in Fulton County, which was central to many theories about the election being stolen. Giuliani conceded that his statements "carry meaning that is defamatory per se," and were "actionable" and “false." However, he argued that they did not cause Freeman and Moss damage and the accusations were constitutionally protected. Further, he argued that he made those concessions to avoid the continued litigation over "unnecessary disputes" around litigating fact patterns of the case. The New York Times has the story


  • 55%. The percentage of Republicans who say fighting "woke ideology in our schools and businesses" is more important than protecting entitlement programs, according to an April poll from The Wall Street Journal.
  • 61%. The percentage of registered voters who support Florida's Parental Rights in Education law, which bans classroom instruction through the third grade on gender issues, according to a 2022 poll from Public Opinion Strategies.
  • 54%. The percentage of Florida voters who say they approve of the way Gov. DeSantis is handling his job, according to a new Florida Atlantic University poll.
  • 43%. The percentage of Florida voters who say they disapprove of the way Gov. DeSantis is handling his job, according to a new Florida Atlantic University poll.
  • 72%. The percentage of black voters in Florida who disapprove of the way Gov. DeSantis is handling his job, according to a new Florida Atlantic University poll.

The extras.

  • One year ago today our intern Audrey Moorhead wrote a piece about her experience at Harvard.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the cocaine sharks.
  • Lukewarm: 440 Tangle readers (an unusually low response rate) answered our poll asking for opinions on our international roundup yesterday. 37% want to see more international news in Tangle, and 59% want to see this format used to cover international news. 25% do not want us to sacrifice U.S. politics to cover international news. For frequency of international coverage, 26% suggested weekly, 43% suggested monthly, 20% suggested once every few months, 3% suggested annually, and 5% said not at all. "This news and format is used elsewhere (NYT) on a regular basis so I just don’t think it’s necessary for Tangle to try and change lanes and do this also. You’re very good at what you do and will probably have to work twice as hard to produce a lesser product trying to cover international news," one respondent cautioned.
  • Nothing to do with politics: A raccoon on the baggage belt in the Philadelphia airport.
  • Take the poll. What do you think of Florida's new social studies curriculum? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Antonio Vento Carvajal is 14 years old, and has been legally blind much of his life due to a genetic condition called epidermolysis bullosa. The rare condition, which affects just 3,000 people globally, causes blisters all over his body and in his eyes, where it is particularly difficult to treat. However, thanks to an innovative topical gene therapy treatment, he has near perfect sight today. The treatment, called Vyjuvek, was adapted by Pittsburgh-based company Krystal Biotech from a topical gel used to treat Antonio's skin lesions through gene therapy. All Antonio needs to do is take the eyedrops once a month, and his vision, which was once so severely impacted that it rendered him legally blind, remains healthy and normal. Dr. Alfonso Sabater, who has been treating Antonio's condition, said the long journey of finding and seeking the necessary approvals for the treatment “was worth it. Just for Antonio, it was worth it ... but also because it opens the space to treat other patients in the future.” ABC news has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.