PolitiFact Defends Harris On Florida's 'Offensive' History Standards

July 25th, 2023 12:00 PM

PolitiFact waded into the controversy surrounding Florida’s new history standards by rating Vice President Kamala Harris “mostly true” for her statement that the state is teaching “enslaved people benefited from slavery.” To reach such a conclusion the trio of Sofia Bliss-Carrascosa, Louis Jacobson, and Amy Sherman had to tie themselves into a giant pretzel by simply downplaying evidence contrary to Harris’s allegation.

After summarizing the positions of Harris on one hand and Governor and potential 2024 rival Ron DeSantis and Republicans on the other, the authors write, “Although the new standards include many conventional lesson points about the history of slavery, they also include a sentence that enslaved people developed skills that ‘could be applied for their personal benefit’ — and this has drawn heated rebuttals from historians, who consider it factually misleading and offensive for seeming to find a silver lining in slavery.”

Later in the article, they add “The rest of the document includes specific standards about slavery, including the development of slavery and the conditions for Africans as they were brought to America. It also covers how slave codes resulted in enslaved people becoming property without rights, abolitionist movements, state and federal laws, revolts by slaves, and the Civil War.” (emphasis added)

Further still, the trio quote two members of the working group, who are both black, that came up with the standards as correctly stating “the criticism took ‘a few isolated expressions without context.’”

One of those members was William Allen “a retired political science professor and former dean of James Madison College at Michigan State University.” Despite those credentials, later portions of the article were included under a subheading “Experts criticized Florida’s social studies standards.” Allen and colleague Frances Presley Rice justify the inclusion of skill acquisition by noting "Any attempt to reduce slaves to just victims of oppression fails to recognize their strength, courage and resilience during a difficult time in American history."

While PolitiFact quotes that part of their statement, it leaves out, "Florida students deserve to learn how slaves took advantage of whatever circumstances they were in to benefit themselves and the community of African descendants."

PolitiFact, and Sherman in particular, has quoted experts who defend Republicans before only to place them on a lower tier than those who attack Republicans. She rated Mitch McConnell “false” for claiming Democrats’ Freedom To Vote Act is “a sprawling takeover of our whole political system” despite quoting the CATO Institute’s Ilya Shapiro agreeing with him because there were also some left-wing professors who told her what she wanted to hear.

As for Florida and Harris, “Multiple experts on Black history and racism in the United States said the language used in Florida’s standards about enslaved people learning skills is misleading.”

One of those “experts” was Emory University’s African American studies Prof. Carol Anderson, who declared Florida’s standards are similar to the "old argument that slavery was a benevolent institution that benefited the enslaved."

That quote is a contradiction to the earlier report where the authors admit that the curriculum includes portions on the conditions slaves were forced to endure and that they had no rights. Yet, PolitiFact uses it, and similar anti-Florida quotations, to justify giving Harris a “mostly true” rating, “The middle school standards approved by the Florida state education board say students should learn about ‘skills’ learned by slaves that could be ‘applied for their personal benefit.’ Several historians who have studied slavery cast doubt on this lesson’s educational value.”

PolitiFact can’t have it both ways. Either Florida teaches that slavery was awful because it deprived people of their rights or it teaches that slavery was benevolent. As the authors admit, the part about skill acquisition is just one of many parts of the new standards, meaning the “mostly true” rating for Harris is way too generous.