Kevin Kruse on Florida's whitewashing of Black history
The part about slavery is getting all the attention. But Kruse argues that Florida's treatment of the 20th century is just as egregious.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been pilloried, and rightfully so, for Florida’s new Black history standards — particularly the claim that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” But Kevin Kruse, a Princeton professor whose specialities include 20th century American history and modern conservatism, argues that other parts of the curriculum are equally problematic.
“You’ve got two references to Everett Dirksen and one reference to Malcolm X? In a course on African American history? That’s bizarre,” Kruse told Public Notice. “The 20th century section seems to be a defense of the Republican Party and conservatives rather than taking African American history as it was.”
Florida’s new history standards were the product of a work group put together by the state Department of Education. They reflect DeSantis’s broader “war on woke,” which includes new laws limiting discussion of race and gender identity in public schools. While a lot of attention has been paid to how the whitewashing has become a political albatross for DeSantis amid his flatlining presidential bid — other Republicans have criticized him for going too far, and he’s tried to distance himself from the new standards — we decided to connect with Kruse in hopes of better understanding the rich tradition of American reactionaries getting mad about classroom instruction of topics like evolution and multiculturalism.
A transcript of the conversation Public Notice contributor Thor Benson had with Kruse, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
As a historian, what was your initial reaction when you heard about the new history standards in Florida, especially the claim about slaves learning beneficial skills?
You see echoes of that in the original African American history standards — about slaves learning trades — but I think we’re too narrowly fixed on that one claim. The larger problem with the slavery standards is that in Florida’s version there’s nobody behind slavery. The founders don’t want it. The antebellum period is one filled with abolitionists who are going to get rid of it. There’s no one actually enslaving people. There’s no one standing behind the system.
It’s really a story of resistance and exception. The original African American history standards are ones that stressed the lived reality and futility of life under slavery. It’s a much less optimistic and redemption-filled story.
The idea behind the new standards is to remove anything that would cause discomfort for white students, but it’s in the 20th century where I really see problems. We’re all focused on the slavery part, but if you look at the 20th century stuff, the partisan slant really comes into focus.
What are some specific points in the 20th century curriculum that you take issue with?
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