Why Ron DeSantis’s Florida slavery curriculum is so insidious | Saida Grundy | The Guardian
"In the mid-20th century, a generation after the civil war, the United Daughters of the Confederacy set out to rebrand the image of slavery. The group, composed of female descendants of Confederate soldiers, was fixated on returning the country’s social order to its antebellum racial hierarchy. It sought to reimagine slavery as a benign institution, and to glorify the “lost cause” of white southern insurrectionists who attempted to overthrow the government in slavery’s defense. The place that served as ground zero for the UDC’s revisionist-history effort? Schools.
In one of its most successful campaigns, the UDC called for the widespread adoption of textbooks that trivialized the horrors of slavery. As a result, a 1954 middle school textbook titled History of Georgia claimed that a typical slave owner “often had a barbecue or picnic for his slaves. The [enslaved] often had a great frolic. Even while working in the cotton fields they sang songs.” (It is no coincidence that the book was published the same year the NAACP won the supreme court case to desegregate public schools.) And while most contemporary school texts have since moved towards acknowledging that slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow era were reprehensible, organized efforts against teaching accurate racial history continue to occur.
The UDC’s legacy of revision emerged again in Florida recently, when the Republican governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis introduced legislation that would de-emphasize racism in the state’s public education curricula. Last week, DeSantis announced that Florida texts will teach students that slavery benefited African Americans who “gained skills” that “eventually parlayed … into doing other things in life”. Civil-rights leaders, educators, and scholars were quick to criticize this minimization of slavery’s cruelty as ignorance at best and deliberate misrepresentation at worst. Vice-President Kamala Harris even reacted, calling the policy an attempt “to replace history with lies”.
The backlash to DeSantis’s move is warranted and necessary, but most of the critiques miss the mark on identifying the Florida law’s deeper insidiousness. What the architects of this legislation are really attempting to do – as the UDC attempted a century before – is galvanize a political right and hold on to conservative white rule in a country with rapidly changing demographics. By denying the true ills of slavery, DeSantis is working to release the American government from the obligation of correcting for its present-day inequalities. The violence of slavery is not just limited to a series of heinous acts that happened in the past, it also includes a deliberate process of disinformation that enables future generations to maintain the power yielded by that violence.
Though DeSantis’s career has relied heavily on making power gains by denying violence, the political strategy is not his invention. The practice of violence denial has long been a hallmark of the modern world’s most oppressive regimes. Take, for example, the British empire. During her 21st birthday address in 1947, the heir apparent Elizabeth II memorably declared that her life would be lived in “service of our great imperial family to which we all belong”. Her characterization of upholding Britain’s unrelenting and exploitative colonial system as “service”, and her assertion of an “imperial family” that included subjugated African, Asian and Caribbean people, are examples of the same whitewashing tactic employed by DeSantis. Even his efforts to ban “controversial” texts were cribbed – the British crown consistently prohibited books that challenged colonial rule in conquered territories.
Another world power that has sought to subvert the historical record is Turkey, with regard to the government’s refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. To aid in its denial, Turkey spent millions of dollars to control the massacre’s narrative and enacted laws that criminalized anyone who accurately used the term “genocide” in reference to the killing, starvation and forced removal of an estimated 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians in the country from 1915 to 1916. Even today, Turkish loyalists dismiss dissenters who speak up about the genocide as having an agenda or being backed by foreign agitators.
Ultimately, regimes exploit disinformation about the past because the truth threatens their grip on power. But it should surprise no one when those tactics to win a political advantage also spill over into present-day issues. DeSantis’s war on reality doesn’t stop at slavery. During the pandemic, his administration also banned mandates on masks, quarantines and vaccines, and suppressed facts about the ballooning number of Covid cases, even as the death toll for Floridians soared ahead of other states.
Calling out the information that DeSantis and his supporters are distorting in textbooks and other messaging is important. However, it is just as important to not lose sight of the larger threat that violence denial poses for societies. Organized efforts to document and broadcast the truth of our past are the most significant defense we have against disinformation."