A Dream and a Lie: Ron DeSantis’s Twisted Race Pedagogy

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s legislative crusade against Black history in Florida’s K-12 curriculum is nothing short of a frontal assault on Black Americans’ sense of reality and identity. History in American education is not, as DeSantis suggests, an impartial assemblage of the “cut and dried” facts. It is, rather, the way we test and refine various narratives of our collective identity and national aspirations—and, crucially, interrogate the enabling fictions that make up the American dream. James Baldwin underlined the central fact that DeSantis’s campaign against Black learning sidesteps during his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley Jr. at the University of Cambridge when he declared, “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Fifty-eight years later, Ta-Nehisi Coates reiterated the same point in his landmark book Between the World and Me: “Historians conjured the dream.”

By forbidding instruction in the country’s actual history, via everything from Florida’s ban on critical race theory to the abandonment of advanced AP classes in African American history, DeSantis has reversed this foundational insight, conjuring the dream as state-sanctioned knowledge. Florida schools now operate under the mission to present students with a largely anodyne, conflict-free, and mythologized account of racial history as fact—and as the foundation of their civic identity.

This ideologically driven agenda gives the lie to DeSantis’s frequent insistence that Florida’s education standards “require teaching Black history.” In point of fact, the standards require no such thing; they categorize African American history as an elective. In other words, while schools may be mandated to offer such courses, no student is required to take them. This procedural dodge, like so many of DeSantis’s pronouncements, is meant to preemptively disarm criticism: If he can make it seem that African American history is already required for all Florida students, the advocates of the “woke” sensibility DeSantis reviles will appear to be distorting the truth in the alleged service of their ideological agendas.

That was the whole point of DeSantis’s high-profile press conference on the state’s teaching standards earlier this month, where he denounced the case made by his detractors as a “hoax.” “They will say things like ‘Florida does not want students to know that there was slavery in the United States,’ which is just an absolute lie,” DeSantis said. “Florida law does the opposite.”

Well, not so much. It’s true that a 1994 state law requires Florida’s public schools to teach African American history, including the “enslavement experience, abolition, and the history and contributions of Americans of the African diaspora to society.” Florida’s Department of Education lists six African American history courses that meet the requirements of the 1994 law, but none of these courses fall under the heading of “core-curricula”—the body of classes students must take in order to graduate from high school.

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