GOP presidential candidate draws renewed criticism after suggesting slavery helped African Americans develop skills such as being a blacksmith
“Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is intensifying his efforts to de-emphasize racism in his state’s public school curriculum by arguing that some Black people benefited from being enslaved and defending his state’s new African American history standards that civil rights leaders and scholars say misrepresents centuries of U.S. reality.
“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,” DeSantis said on Friday in response to reporters’ questions while standing in front of a nearly all-White crowd of supporters.
DeSantis, a GOP presidential candidate who is lagging in polls against the front-runner, former president Donald Trump, and is trying to reset his campaign, quickly drew criticism from educators and even some in his party. He has built his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination on attacking what he calls the radical liberal policies of President Biden and the Democratic Party, but the latest remarks could alienate Black voters just as the GOP tries to court them.
Former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, who announced last month that he was joining the race for the GOP nomination, blasted the idea that enslaved people were able to use slavery as some kind of training program.
“Slavery wasn’t a jobs program that taught beneficial skills,” Hurd, the son of a Black father and a White mother, tweeted. “It was literally dehumanizing and subjugated people as property because they lacked any rights or freedoms.”
DeSantis, however, is continuing to defend Florida’s new curriculum, which covers a broad range of topics and includes the assertion for middle school instruction that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
DeSantis said he “wasn’t involved” in writing the new teaching materials, which took effect this week. But he credited “a lot of scholars” with creating “the most robust standards in African American history probably anywhere in the country.”
Civil rights leaders, educators and others have expressed revulsion at the idea that enslaved people benefited from the experience.
As Biden’s running mate, Vice President Harris has stepped up her attack-dog role, and on Friday traveled to Jacksonville to assail DeSantis’s policies in his home state. She emphasized that slavery involved rape, torture and “some of the worst examples of depriving people of humanity in our world.”
Florida State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat who last year became the first Black woman to become House Democratic Leader, called DeSantis’s latest remarks a continuation of DeSantis’s “assault on Black history.”
“Let’s really dissect what he’s saying here,” she said. “He’s saying that to be ripped away from your homelands and brought to another country against your will, or to be born into the atrocity of the dehumanizing institution that was slavery, that those horrors are some way somehow outweighed by the benefit that you get a trade. Are you kidding me?”
DeSantis issued a statement Friday saying, “Democrats like Kamala Harris have to lie about Florida’s educational standards to cover for their agenda of indoctrinating students and pushing sexual topics onto children.” His campaign did not respond to an email on Saturday requesting comment.
Some on the right defended DeSantis, including Fox News host Jesse Watters.
“No one is arguing slaves benefited from slavery,” Watters said Friday on his prime time show. “No one is saying that. It’s not true. They are teaching how Black people develop skills during slavery in some instances that can be applied for their own personal benefit.”
Biden campaign co-chairman Cedric L. Richmond attacked DeSantis’s defense of the new Florida curriculum as “disgusting.” He added in a statement on Saturday that it was “a symptom of the extremism that’s infected the Republican candidates running for president. There’s no debate over slavery. It was utterly evil with zero redeeming qualities.”
Marvin Dunn, a professor emeritus at Florida International University and author of “A History of Florida: Through Black Eyes,” said DeSantis would gain no political advantage from his argument because “it is so outrageous that people are going to reject it.”
“These children know in their hearts and in their minds that slavery was evil,” he said.
“One of the main things about slavery, beyond the physical damage that it did to people of so many generations, was that it prevented people from becoming what they could have become,” he said.
“So what if you became a carpenter or a blacksmith or a good maid? Your chances of that were not determined by you, it was determined by somebody else. That’s not a rationalization for enslavement.”