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Kamala Harris takes aim at Florida teaching standard, calls for action

Vice President Kamala Harris called Florida’s new teaching standard of African American history said “an attempt to gaslight us.”

Claire Hardwick, USA TODAY

Political advisor William B. Allen, who helped approve Florida’s African American history curriculum, called out Vice President Kamala Harris for her comments on the new course material during a brief interview with ABC News.

The Florida Board of Education signed off on a new K-12 curriculum for social studies in the state last week, sending a storm of controversy in its wake. Opponents of the new coursework, including Harris, have spoken out against several items in the new African American History section.

Supporters, like Allen, have maintained that the outcries are meritless and many have not read the actual changes. Here’s what Allen had to say about the discussion:

Florida School Board approves coursework Florida board OKs Black history standards, rejects concerns about omitting ‘key’ facts

Who is William B. Allen?

William B. Allen, 79, is a conservative political scientist and author from Fernandina Beach, Florida. He has written several books including ‘George Washington: America’s First Progressive’ and ‘Rethinking Uncle Tom: The Political Thought of Harriet Beecher Stowe.’

He was the former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, professor emeritus of political science at Michigan State University, and is now a member of Florida’s African American History Standards Workgroup.

“I responded to a general call for people with interest in and commitment to the educational institutions of the state to respond, and I responded,” Allen told NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “And I participated willingly. It was an offer, a contribution of voluntary public service.”

What is the African American History Standards Workgroup?

The African American History Standards Workgroup is a group that created standards for the curriculum for review by Florida’s African American History Task Force. The work group received about 40 applicants and ultimately had 13 members, including nominees from Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr.

The qualifications for members of the group included one of the following:

  • Hold a Florida Educator Certificate in 6-12 Social Science or Elementary Education K-6
  • Be a school lead History teacher or a district staff member with experience working in Social Science or Elementary Education
  • Have experience teaching African American History and working with Florida’s Social Studies Standards related to African American History

The group met regularly in early May to develop the standards, Burns told outlet K-12 Drive in July.  The standards include, but are not limited to: 

  • For elementary school (K-5) students: Identifying notable African American figures and their contributions to U.S. history, and examining life of early slaves in North America.
  • For middle school (6-8) students: Understanding the “causes, courses and consequences” of the slave trade in the colonies, slave rebellions and resistance, and abolitionist movements. 
  • For high school (9-12) students: Examining the development and practice of slavery around the globe, the efforts of Founding Fathers to end or limit slavery in the U.S., roles of enslaved and freed African Americans in the Civil War, and Black lives during and after Reconstruction. 

What’s in Florida’s new African American History curriculum?

The Florida Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the social studies standards for African American history for kindergarten through 12th grade on July 19.

More: What’s in Florida’s new Black history standards? Read the approved curriculum here

New corrections made to the curriculum characterized skills enslaved people learned as “potentially beneficial” and added new descriptions of the massacres of Black Americans, including Florida’s Ocoee Massacre of 1920.

Why did the Florida Board of Education write a new African American History curriculum?

Florida has been required to teach the history, culture, experiences, and contributions of African Americans in the state’s K-12 curriculum since 1994 when the Florida Legislature created the African History Task Force to write it.

Due to Republican presidential candidate, Gov. Ron DeSantis, signing the “Stop WOKE Act” (CS/HB 7) last year, it prohibited any teaching that could make students feel they bear personal responsibility, guilt, anguish, or “other forms of psychological distress” for actions in the past committed by members of their own race, and blocked instruction that suggested anyone was “either privileged or oppressed” based on race or skin color.

It also requires discussions about race to be taught in an “objective manner” and bans any discussion “used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.” And that meant the curriculum needed to be rewritten to fall in line with the new state-approved requirements.

The new 216-page social studies curriculum has been praised by the state Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz. “Florida is focused on teaching true and accurate African American history,” he tweeted.

What has been the reaction to the new curriculum?

Supporters of the new curriculum say the new descriptions and examples are factual and well-documented.

“Everything is there,” said MaryLynn Magar, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Ron DeSantis this spring. “The darkest parts of our history are addressed, and I’m very proud of the task force. I can confidently say that the DOE and the task force believe that African American history is American history, and that’s represented in those standards.”

However, opponents say it is whitewashing history, highlighting complaints such as — it leaves out Florida’s role in slavery and the oppression of African Americans, identifies racism and prejudice without going into depth about who was promoting it, victim-blames Black communities, uses outdated language, and requires teaching that some enslaved people learned valuable skills that were useful after they were freed.

The NAACP spoke out against the changes, saying Florida history books now “convey a sanitized and dishonest telling of the history of slavery in America.”

“Today’s actions by the Florida state government are an attempt to bring our country back to a 19th century America where Black life was not valued, nor our rights protected. It is imperative that we understand that the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow were a violation of human rights and represent the darkest period in American history,” said NAACP President & CEO Derrick Johnson. “Our children deserve nothing less than truth, justice, and the equity our ancestors shed blood, sweat, and tears for.”

What did Vice President Kamala Harris say about the new curriculum?

In downtown Jacksonville last week, Harris said “that in the State of Florida, they decided middle school students will be taught that enslaved people benefited from slavery,” in response to the coursework developed by Allen’s working group.

“They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, and we will not stand for it.”

Harris criticized the curriculum and the lengths DeSantis has gone to reduce the “woke agenda,” adding that those responsible for the curriculum were wanting to “replace history with lies.” She also highlighted other measures in the state, such as recent book banning and the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill.

“I do believe this is not only about the state of Florida. There is a national agenda afoot,” Harris told an overflow crowd at the history-laden Ritz Theatre and Museum in LaVilla.

What was Williams’ response to Kamala Harris’ comments in Jacksonville’s speech?

In an interview clip ABC News posted, Allen denounced the vice president’s comments, saying Harris was  “categorically false” with her remarks.

He went on to say that “the only criticism I’ve encountered so far is a single one that was articulated by the vice president” and that it was an error since “it was never said that slavery was beneficial to Africans.”

“I just want to foster and encourage everyone to take the time to read, or as I said in my response to the vice president, I think every intellect can understand the language written there if people only take the time to read it,” Allen told reporters. “It’s only those who don’t take the time to read it who will misstate it.”

He continued to defend the coursework his group helped implement.

“It is the case that Africans proved resourceful, resilient, and adaptive, and were able to develop skills and aptitudes which served to their benefit, both while enslaved and after enslaved,” he said.

Has Allen spoken out against criticism about the curriculum before?

In a previous statement with fellow member Dr. Frances Presley Rice, Allen also denounced critics’ attempts to “reduce months of work to create Florida’s first ever stand-alone strand of African American History Standards to a few isolated expressions without context.”

“Florida students deserve to learn how slaves took advantage of whatever circumstances they were in to benefit themselves and the community of African descendants,” they argued.

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