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Kamala Harris condemns DeSantis and ‘extremist, so-called leaders’ without naming them in Florida speech

VP blasts new state school standards that claim enslaved people ‘developed skills’ for ‘personal benefit’

Alex Woodward
Friday 21 July 2023 23:15 BST
Kamala Harris blasts Florida officials for book bans and changes to Black history curriculum

After education officials in Florida faced widespread backlash for approving curriculum standards that minimize slavery and a racist massacre in the state, Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Jacksonville to condemn the state’s “propaganda” and the “extremist, so-called leaders” who support it.

Though she did not name him, the vice president’s speech was directly aimed at Governor Ron DeSantis, whose administration has sought to radically overhaul public education and establish a “parents’ rights” agenda that restricts honest lessons of race and racism, threatens discussion of LGBT+ people and events, targets libraries and reshapes local school boards.

Mr DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president, has modeled his national campaign on one he built in Florida. The vice president said she is “deeply concerned”.

“There is a national agenda afoot,” she said on 21 July. “Extremist so-called leaders for months have dared to ban books. … Extremists here in Florida, passing a law ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ trying to instill fear in our teachers … And now, on top of that, they want to replace history with lies.”

A new set of standards for African American history in Florida schools will teach middle schoolers how enslaved people “developed skills” that could be “applied for personal benefit”.

Another guideline instructs high schoolers to be taught that a massacre led by white supremacists against Black residents in Ocoee to stop them from voting in 1920 included “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans.”

Members of the Florida Board of Education have defended the unanimously approved standards, assuring that they include comprehensive lessons on American history, including its darkest chapters.

But civil rights advocates, educators and Democratic lawmakers have warned that elements of the guidelines present a distorted, revisionist picture of the state’s history of racism.

“Adults know what slavery really was. It involved rape, it involved torture, it involved taking a baby from their mother, it involved some of the worst examples of depriving humanity of people in our world,” Ms Harris said in her remarks.

“It involved subjecting people to the requirement that they would think of themselves and be thought of as less than human. In the context of that, how is it that anyone suggests that in the midst of these atrocities, there was any benefit to being subject to this level of dehumanization?” she said. “It is not only misleading, it is false, it is pushing propaganda.”

She compared the guidelines to other attempts in US history to minimize racism, violence and human rights abuses for political gain, including attempts to diminish the Holocaust and the use of internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II.

“This is not the first time,” said Ms Harris, adding that “there is a national agenda” to “overlook, erase or at least deny” elements of the nation’s history.

“Let us not be seduced into thinking we would be better if we forget. We will be better if we remember. We will be stronger if we remember,” she said.

Her remarks have echoed President Joe Biden’s reflections on past atrocities, urging Americans to reflect on the nation’s failures to live up to the promises affirmed in the US Constitution in an effort to improve upon them.

The vice president also criticized Florida officials for what opponents have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which has inspired similar legislation across the US and in Congress, as well as the wave of book challenges, restrictions and bans across the state that Mr DeSantis has dismissed as a “hoax”.

Governor DeSantis accused the vice president of lying about his agenda and defending what critics have called “Don’t Say Gay” as an attempt to prevent “sexual topics” from classrooms and libraries. Opponents of the law have warned that the law discriminates against and chills speech by and about LGBT+ people in classrooms and libraries.

“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,” he said in a statement on social media.

“Florida stands in their way, and we will continue to expose their agenda and their lies,” he added.

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