TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Civil rights activists cheered when Ron DeSantis pardoned four Black men wrongfully convicted of rape as one of his first actions as Florida's governor. But four years later, as DeSantis eyes the presidency, their hope that the Republican would be an ally on racial justice has long faded.
Instead, African American leaders decry what they call a pattern of “policy violence” against people of color imposed by the DeSantis administration that reached a low point after the recent release of an “anti-woke” public school curriculum on Black history. Specifically, Florida's teachers are now required to instruct middle-school students that enslaved people “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
DeSantis has repeatedly defended the new language while insisting that his critics, who include Vice President Kamala Harris and two leading Black Republicans in Congress, are intentionally misinterpreting one line of the sweeping curriculum. Civil rights leaders who have watched DeSantis closely dismiss such explanations.
“DeSantis has perfected the art of using policy violence that we must stop," said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP. His organization issued a travel advisory for Florida in May warning African Americans against DeSantis' “aggressive attempts to erase Black history and to restrict diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in Florida schools.”
The divisive debate highlights the political and practical risks of DeSantis’ approach to racial issues as he seeks to reset his struggling campaign and the Republican Party works to strengthen its dismal standing with voters of color.
Ambitious Republican leaders have long seized on white grievance to animate the party's most passionate voters, who are almost exclusively white. But DeSantis, a combative conservative who leads one of the nation's largest states, has embraced far-right positions on race perhaps more aggressively than anyone in the 2024 presidential contest as he tries to position himself to the right of Trump.
The 44-year-old governor was as defiant as ever on Thursday when asked about the critics within his own party who echoed the Democratic vice president's concerns.
“At the end of the day, you got to choose: Are you going to side with Kamala Harris and liberal media outlets or are you going to side with the state of Florida?" DeSantis told reporters as he campaigned in Iowa. "I think it’s very clear that these guys did a good job on those standards. It wasn't anything that was politically motivated.”
DeSantis is now facing criticism from Florida teachers, civil rights leaders and the Biden White House. Harris, the nation's first Black vice president, traveled to Florida last week to condemn the curriculum. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is the chamber's sole Black Republican and is also seeking the White House, issued a direct rebuke of DeSantis on Thursday while campaigning in Iowa.
“What slavery was really about was separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives. It was just devastating,” he told reporters. “So I would hope that every person in our country — and certainly running for president — would appreciate that. People have bad days. Sometimes they regret what they say. And we should ask them again to clarify their positions.”
Most of DeSantis' other GOP presidential opponents have stayed silent. But other Black conservatives have begun to speak out. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., one of the most powerful Black Republicans in the state, said he has a problem with the part of the curriculum that suggests enslaved people derived any benefit from their situation.
“To me, yes, that section needs some adjustments," he told southwest Florida's WINK News this week.
"The talking point narrative around it, yeah, it sounds awful,” said Donalds, who, like almost every Republican in Florida's congressional delegation, has endorsed Trump over DeSantis in the primary. “Nobody should be accepting of that. But when you read through the standards, they actually did a very good job in covering all aspects of Black history in the United States.”
Donalds said he planned to work with the State Board of Education to “bring refinement" to that topic.
The DeSantis administration later went on the attack against Donalds, a popular conservative seen as a rising star in the GOP.
The state's education commissioner, Manny Diaz Jr., vowed on social media Wednesday not to change the teaching standards “at the behest of a woke @WhiteHouse, nor at the behest of a supposedly conservative congressman.” DeSantis’ spokesperson, Jeremy Redfern, piled on, posting that “supposed conservatives in the federal government are pushing the same false narrative that originated from the @WhiteHouse.”
As the dynamic unfolds under the bright spotlight of presidential politics, DeSantis' approach risks alienating would-be conservative supporters while undermining his core message to Republican voters, which relies on the notion that he is more electable than Trump against President Joe Biden in the general election.
Republican strategists acknowledge that the curriculum fight could undermine the party's modest gains with some voters of color in recent elections. African Americans and Latinos, particularly young men, have shifted slightly toward the GOP, although both groups still overwhelmingly backed Democrats.
“There are much more valuable issues that DeSantis should focus on,” said Republican strategist Alice Stewart, who added that the current debate could “absolutely” alienate voters of color and suburban whites alike.
Still, she suggested DeSantis was being unfairly criticized.
“It’s important as always to make sure that you read everything before you take one part and blow it up," Stewart said. "This is one part of a larger curriculum. And this was written and approved and signed off by an African American scholar.”
The group that revised the Black history curriculum included William B. Allen, a Black professor emeritus at Michigan State University who has defended the wording about slavery.
Former Republican strategist Tara Setmayer, now an adviser with the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said the debate reflects an unfortunate political reality in today's GOP: Far-right positions on race have become incredibly popular since Trump's rise. She argued there is virtually no short-term downside to emphasizing the issue for candidates running in Republican primaries, which are dominated by the party's white base.
“I was a Republican for 27 years, and at no time did the Republican Party try to whitewash American history," she said. “Now, that’s a mainstream Republican talking point.”
DeSantis is far from alone in pushing the limits of the GOP's rightward shift on race.
Trump dined last fall with noted white supremacist Nick Fuentes. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. and Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. spoke at a gathering of white supremacists in Florida earlier in the year. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has repeatedly refused to denounce white nationalists serving in the U.S. military in recent weeks. Rep. Eli Crane, R-Ariz. referred to Black people as “colored people” on the House floor this month.
In the GOP's presidential primary, all the candidates have come out against critical race theory, the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions, which function to maintain the dominance of white people in society. They regularly insist that America is not a racist nation, accusing Democrats of perpetuating that notion to score political points.
In many cases, however, DeSantis has gone further than his 2024 rivals in using the levers of government to enshrine the conservative position — much of it coming after his presidential ambitions came into view.
Even before he was sworn in, DeSantis faced allegations of racism for saying Florida voters would not “monkey” up the election by voting for his Black Democratic opponent in 2018. But DeSantis then drew praise for opening his governorship by pardoning the Groveland Four, a group of four Black men convicted of a 1949 rape they did not commit.
The praise didn't last.
In 2020, DeSantis pushed the Florida Legislature to approve the so-called anti-riot act, which was designed to crack down on violence associated with African American demonstrations against police violence. That's even as he’s downplayed the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
More recently, DeSantis pushed through the Stop WOKE (Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees) Act, a law that limits discussions on race in schools and by corporations. The law was intended, at least in part, to prevent white people from feeling guilty or uncomfortable about racial injustices committed by other white people.
DeSantis has also banned state universities from using state or federal money for diversity programs.
In a move that has not gained as much attention, he has declined to select individuals for the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame in four years, despite a state law that requires nominees to be submitted to him annually. He has continued to name people to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame and the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.
DeSantis also demanded that former Democratic Rep. Al Lawson’s congressional district be redrawn to dilute the influence of Black voters in north Florida. As a result, Florida no longer has Black representation in Washington for an area stretching about 360 miles (580 kilometers) from the Alabama line to the Atlantic Ocean and from the Georgia line south to Orlando.
Still, Black Republican activist Quisha King of Jacksonville says she's been thrilled by DeSantis' leadership, especially on education.
King said it's “ignorant” and “simple-minded” to condemn the provision of Florida's new education curriculum related to slavery.
“My great, great, grandfather was born a slave. He bought his freedom. How do they think he was able to buy his freedom?” she asked. “They used the skills that they had to make some money and save it up and buy their freedom."
The Department of Education said Wednesday that it released a statement on the new Black history curriculum last week and would not comment further.
Meanwhile, state Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones, who is Black, said that painting a rosier picture of atrocities does not benefit anyone.
“Their idea is to teach history in a way to make white people not be looked at in a bad light,” Jones said. “There’s no silver bow that you can tie around the history of Black people. You can’t make lynching look good, you can’t make the raping of women look good."
“There’s no benefit to that," he added. "There was nothing right about that. There was nothing just about that. It was torture.”
Peoples reported from New York and Stafford from Detroit. Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut in Ankeny, Iowa, contributed to this report.