Vice President Kamala Harris went headfirst into flashpoint culture war issues Friday when she slammed Florida Republicans for the state Board of Education’s newly approved set of standards for teaching Black history, accusing “so-called leaders” of pushing propaganda and willfully misleading children.
It’s the latest example of Harris acting as a rapid response voice for the administration, quickly deploying around the country in the immediate aftermath of a controversial vote or law being passed to offer forceful pushback of moves taken by state Republicans on guns, abortion and education. On Wednesday, the Florida Board of Education approved a new set of standards for how Black history should be taught in the state’s public schools, sparking criticism from education and civil rights advocates who said students should be allowed to learn the “full truth” of American history.
“We know the history. And let us not let these politicians who are trying to divide our country win” Harris said in her fiery high-profile speech. “They are creating these unnecessary debates. This is unnecessary to debate whether enslaved people benefited from slavery. Are you kidding me? Are we supposed to debate that?”
Harris said that she was concerned Republicans want to “replace history with lies.” She highlighted new standards, which, according to a document posted to the state’s Department of Education website, require instruction for middle schoolers to include “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
It is the latest development in the state’s ongoing debate over African American history, including the education department’s rejection of a preliminary pilot version of an Advanced Placement African American Studies course for high school students, which it claimed lacked educational value. The White House has spoken out forcefully against book bans and other steps to remove elements of American history from school curricula, and the issue was included in Biden’s reelection announcement video in April.
The president’s advisers view the issue as one that can galvanize Democrats in next year’s elections, and Harris’ presence in the state at the epicenter of boiling culture wars seeks to present Harris and Biden as the safeguards against extremist steps that could limit freedoms and speech.
On her eighth trip to Florida since taking office, Harris criticized the state’s governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis – though not by name – in what has become a clear strategy to increase the Biden administration’s engagement with the Republican. That strategy has been bolstered by polling and research showing Americans opposed to banning books that include information on slavery and other issues.
The former California attorney general adopted a prosecutorial cadence to shine light on the Biden administration’s efforts to stand as a safeguard against what she called a national agenda by extremists to claw back rights.
“These extremists, so-called leaders should model what we know to be the correct and right approach if we really are invested in the well-being of our children. Instead, they dare to push propaganda to our children. This is the United States of America. We’re not supposed to do that,” she said.
On Friday, Harris made the point that American allies and enemies abroad know the history of slavery in the US but these proposals, she alleged, would leave children from the US without that same knowledge.
“That’s building in a handicap for our children that they are going to be the ones in the room who don’t know their own history with the rest of the world,” she said.
On the standards themselves, Harris described the atrocities of slavery in detail, reciting how children were ripped from their mothers’ arms and were treated as less than human.
“So, in the context of that, how is it that anyone could suggest that in the midst of these atrocities, that there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanization,” Harris questioned.
The vice president has spent the summer months traveling the country to speak out in support of freedoms she and Democrats believe are under attack by Republicans, including abortion and the right to learn. Harris has appeared in front of base Democratic voters that include Black voters, women and young people to deliver her message.
Friday’s last-minute trip to Florida – it was only scheduled on Thursday night – marks the second time this year she’s delivered high-profile remarks in the Sunshine State meant to condemn Republican attacks on rights. Harris told the mainly Black crowd in Jacksonville’s historic LaVille neighborhood that the administration was listening and quickly responding to their concerns.
“You are not alone,” Harris said.
This story has been updated with additional developments.