Dear Ron DeSantis, slavery was not a job skills program

A losing Republican campaign finds a winning issue: whitewashing the enslavement of Black Americans

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 28, 2023 5:59AM (EDT)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis's presidential campaign is floundering, but his neofascist Orwellian thought crime campaign against teaching the real history of Black Americans – and America's real history more generally – is having great success nonetheless, as historian Keisha N. Blain outlines at MSNBC: 

For example, according to the state's new guidelines, instructors will be expected to teach students that enslaved Black people "developed skills" that "could be applied for their personal benefit." Instructors are also expected to discuss "acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans" when teaching students about mob violence….Rather than offer its students courses that provide a full and honest accounting of the past, Florida is choosing to dishonestly keep its students ignorant of this country's (and that state's) history.

These new "educational standards" are actually using the Black freedom struggle to advance a project of white supremacy. DeSantis' administration and its agents are censoring books they deem to be anti-American, "woke" or contaminated with the "critical race theory mind virus". Florida is now targeting educators for harassment and intimidation, rewriting school curriculums and threatening to defund departments and courses if they cover subjects that "make white people uncomfortable" or "feel guilty." They are banning diversity, inclusion, and equity programs, and are attempting to end academic and intellectual freedom at Florida's universities and colleges as part of a larger plan to destroy liberal arts education (i.e. courses that teach critical thinking). Several weeks ago, for example, the Florida legislature passed a law that makes it illegal for Florida's colleges and universities to teach the fact that systemic and structural racism exists in American society.

DeSantis and the other Republican neofascists and hatemongers are also, quite literally, trying to erase the LGBTQI community from public life by pushing the moral panic over "groomers" who are targeting children for "recruitment" and "indoctrination." This Orwellian thought crime campaign is part of a decades-long, very well-financed, and much larger project by the "conservative" movement to destroy and replace the country's quality public (and private) schools and education with a political indoctrination program ("patriotic education") that creates subservient and compliant citizens who will be mindless drones for a Christofascist American apartheid plutocracy.  

At the LA Progressive, social theorist and cultural critic Henry Giroux described such "apartheid pedagogy":

Apartheid pedagogy is about denial and disappearance—a manufactured ignorance that attempts to whitewash history and rewrite the narrative of American exceptionalism as it might have been framed in in the 1920s and 30s when members of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan shaped the policies of some school boards. Apartheid pedagogy uses education as a disimagination machine to convince students and others that racism does not exist, that teaching about racial justice is a form of indoctrination, and that understanding history is more an exercise in blind reverence than critical analysis. Apartheid pedagogy aims to reproduce current systems of racism rather than end them. Apartheid pedagogy most ardent proponent is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who has become America's most prominent white supremacist.

At a recent campaign event in Utah, DeSantis responded to criticism about the new plan to whitewash the teaching of African-American history in Florida by evading responsibility, claiming that he had nothing to do with the new guidelines. DeSantis then proceeded to defend the changes, saying, "They're probably going to show that some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into doing things later in life."

White on-Black chattel slavery was not a "jobs program" that helped Black people develop valuable skills.

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In reality, white-on-Black chattel slavery across the Americas lasted for centuries during which tens of millions (if not more) of Black people were killed, maimed, raped, tortured, and worked to death as their labor (physical, intellectual, emotional, and creative) was stolen from them by white societies and transformed into intergenerational wealth and income for white people as part of a global colonial and imperial project. It is not an exaggeration to describe America's rise to global power and influence as being built quite literally on the stolen labor, wealth, income, lives and land of Black (and brown) people.

Florida's new African-American history guidelines are built on another huge lie as well. Black African people(s) had culture, knowledge, skills, and lives before they encountered white Europeans and Americans; Black people (and brown and indigenous peoples as well) were not sitting around doing nothing, existing in some state of primitive debasement and ignorance or living as "noble savages" who were waiting for White "Christian" "civilization" and uplift. Those Black people who survived the living hell of the Middle Passage and then centuries of enslavement and brutalization were not an undifferentiated mass of brutes as conceptualized by the white popular imagination. They were doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, teachers, politicians, engineers, blacksmiths, generals, soldiers, artists, poets, writers, artisans, farmers, explorers, businesspeople, philosophers, and people from a range of other backgrounds. White slavers would assess the financial worth and overall economic value of a Black enslaved person(s) based on their skills and expected "return on investment" in a sophisticated system of capitalist markets and finance.

White people didn't do Black people a "favor" by enslaving them. To have to write such words is absurd and draining; nonetheless, there are many people who believe such a gross and untrue thing.

Moreover, the peoples and civilizations of Africa had technological, scientific, cultural, and other knowledge and experience across a range of areas including agriculture, medicine, engineering, metallurgy, architecture, math, science, the arts and letters, that in many instances was more advanced than the knowledge and skills possessed by white Europeans. In a 2017 interview with NPR, Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is one of the world's leading authorities on African-American history, makes the following intervention:

The story of Africa has been systematically denied to us for two reasons. The first is slavery. The second is colonialism. Europeans had to invent an Africa as a place of emptiness and barrenness and backwardness in order to justify the enslavement of 12.5 million human beings who were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean between 1501 and roughly 1866.

And then, after slavery finally was abolished - the slave trade - European colonial powers looked at a big empty map of Africa and carved it up like you carve up a pizza pie. And they just passed out slices. They'd say, OK, Germany, you want Tanganyika - here. Senegal, this is for you, France. And what I wanted to do was to tell the story of the great African people and their civilizations….

These were sophisticated societies. And Africans were just as curious about what was on the other side of the proverbial other side of the mountain as anyone else was. The first iron technology in the world was developed in Africa in 1800 B.C., even earlier than in India and the Middle East.

Here's another amazing thing. Almost all of the gold used in Europe between 1000 A.D. and 1500 A.D. was mined at one of three regions in West Africa. The richest man in the history of the world, according to, was the emperor of Mali. 

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Stated much more plainly: white people didn't do Black people a "favor" by enslaving them. To have to write such words is absurd and draining; nonetheless, there are many people who believe such a gross and untrue thing. There was nothing benign or noble about white on Black enslavement, colonialism, and imperialism and other forms of racial oppression and domination. By definition, there were no "good" or "kind" white slave owners. As Ja'han Jones writes at MSNBC:

In other words — sure, some enslaved people may have honed technical skills under the threat of violence or death from the people who owned them. Some of these enslaved people may have even used these skills in a post-abolition world. But all of these skills were honed in an environment that prioritized and facilitated Black oppression — not Black self-improvement.

With an education system like Florida's — that both lauds capitalism and prioritizes defending white people from guilt — the natural result is a conclusion that slavery somehow served a moral good.

And the DeSantis administration is trying to impose this absurdity on Florida schoolchildren.

At the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson reminds readers that these discussions of the enslavement of Black people in America transcend history and are not some footnote in a book or curiosity in an archive:

Where to begin? I'll start with my own family history. One of my great-great-grandfathers, enslaved in Charleston, S.C., was indeed compelled to learn to be a blacksmith. But he had no ability to "parlay" anything, because his time and labor were not his own. They belonged to his enslaver. He belonged to his enslaver.

To pretend my ancestor was done some sort of favor by being taught a trade ignores the reality of race-based, chattel slavery as practiced in the United States. He was sold like a piece of livestock at least twice that I know of. To say he "developed skills," as if he had signed up for some sort of apprenticeship program, is appallingly ahistorical. As was true for the millions of other enslaved African Americans, anything he achieved was in spite of his bondage.

DeSantis's Orwellian thought crime war on teaching the real history of Black Americans and the color line must also be located relative to the larger project by the "conservative" movement and white right to undo the gains of the civil rights movement and Black Freedom Struggle – and by implication multiracial pluralistic democracy – by rewriting history (and the present) to create a fictional narrative that intergenerational chattel slavery in America was not unique because "all civilizations in history had slaves" (not true) and that the enslavement of Black people in America is just a version of some type of universal and vague "immigrant experience" (not true).

Other examples of this right-wing racial project include claims such as that Black American slaves were somehow the equivalent of European serfs (not true) or had it "better than white laborers in the North" (not true) or that "Irish slaves" and "poor whites in the South" suffered worse and were more "oppressed" than Black human property (not true).

In a new essay at the Guardian, Tayo Bero elaborates:

In a way, the institutional attacks on public memory that we're seeing help America get by without having to hold itself accountable for, well, any of it.

Slavery has always been the lightning rod for larger historical anti-Blackness, so if slavery itself isn't that bad, then what does America truly have to make up for?

Denying the truth about the institution upon which the US was built also softens the hard and violent edges of all of slavery's grandchildren. Jim Crow, redlining, systematic disenfranchisement, mass incarceration – none of it means that much if we can't even agree on the very thing that spawned them.

What DeSantis has started in Florida is a steady campaign of lies, obfuscation and political violence that slowly chips away at our shared reality, without which a truly democratic and free society is impossible to achieve.

Fascists and authoritarians do not believe in empirical reality and independent truth. Instead, reality and facts and the truth are contingent, malleable, inconveniences to be twisted and distorted to fit the fascist project and revolutionary struggle. DeSantis' Orwellian thought crime campaign and targeting of African-American history fits firmly within that mold. To quote the essential Hannah Arendt, "Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it."

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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