Battle over America's racial past intensifies in race for leadership of its future

DeSantis defends his state’s portrayal of slavery; Biden criticizes book bans and pays tribute to Emmett Till
The 2024 presidential race, which is typically focused on shaping the future of the country, is now dominated by a heated debate over reevaluating, redefining, and reimagining its past.

Over the past 10 days, candidates from various political backgrounds have delved into discussions about the complexities of slavery, Reconstruction, military desegregation, and lynching. This marks a rare moment in modern presidential politics where Black history takes precedence over more traditional topics such as taxes or crime.

On July 21, GOP presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) defended his state's new history standards, which suggest that slavery had advantages for some enslaved individuals. Just hours earlier, Vice President Harris traveled to Jacksonville, Fla., to condemn these standards as "propaganda." Four days later, President Biden declared a national monument for Emmett Till, a Black teenager brutally murdered in 1955, using the occasion to denounce "ignorance and denialism" from those who seek to "erase history."

Other Republican campaigns, including that of former president Donald Trump, have since joined the fray by attacking DeSantis while promoting similar ideas regarding how history should be presented on matters of race.

This political and educational dispute encapsulates a broader debate that has erupted nationwide regarding what should be taught about race, history, and their intersection. It highlights how the nation's escalating culture wars, now deeply embedded in classrooms, have expanded to erode Americans' shared understanding of history, causing many to view the past through the lens of contemporary polarization.

"Most of our previous arguments were about who should be included in the story, not the story itself," said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania specializing in the history of education. "America has lost a unified national narrative."

The conflict has intensified in recent years as America's historical record on race has increasingly become a battleground for partisan disagreements. It has resulted in educators losing their jobs, forced others to self-censor, triggered a crisis in the textbook publishing industry, and reshaped how students learn about race and racism in classrooms across the country. As these tensions spill over from local school board meetings to state legislatures, the White House, and now the campaign trail, history has become a defining issue for presidential contenders.

DeSantis, whose "anti-woke" agenda has positioned Florida at the forefront of revising the teaching of Black history, has faced criticism for supporting a set of standards for middle school instruction that include teaching "how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit."

As DeSantis attempts to clarify his stance amidst a broader campaign reset this past week, the bipartisan condemnation suggests that his efforts may encounter obstacles. Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who celebrates his African American family's journey "from cotton to Congress" while praising the American history that facilitated such upward mobility, criticized DeSantis's argument regarding the supposed benefits received by enslaved individuals.

"There are no positives in slavery," said Scott, who is also vying for the GOP presidential nomination, implying that DeSantis should consider clarifying his position. "People have bad days. Sometimes they regret what they say."

Harris, typically on the opposite side of Scott when it comes to matters of racial history and justice, also reprimanded the Florida governor. Shortly after learning about the standards, she made an unplanned trip to Jacksonville to condemn what she referred to as "revisionist history" being taught in classrooms.

"It is unnecessary to debate whether enslaved people benefited from slavery. Are you kidding me?" she stated on July 21, two days after the Florida Depar

طلحة عبد الكريم
By : طلحة عبد الكريم
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