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State should be ashamed of slavery education plans

In the Orlando Sentinel, July 29, 2023

GUEST COLUMNIST, Harry Coverston

State should be ashamed of slavery education plans

I am a sixth-generation Floridian, the descendant of slavers. I had nothing to say about my ancestors. But I have a lot to say about how we understand them today.

I am also a fourth-generation teacher. I worked in Florida’s public educational institutions for 36 years, teaching students from fifth grade through doctoral work. I strongly believe in public education. And I know what constitutes good pedagogy and sound educational content and what does not.

The recent state guideline directing the teaching about slavery to middle-school students is the antithesis of both of those concerns. It embodies a number of other concerns, most of them unarticulated. But education is not among them. You don’t have to have a degree in history to recognize that requiring teachers to tell their students that slavery resulted in a “personal benefit” to those enslaved is little more than indoctrination that would have warmed the heart of those charged with shaping minds in the Soviet system.

The problem is, we know better.

The ultimate concern of this directive is to deliberately disinform students about our history to protect white comfort. The presumption that we descendants of slavers and beneficiaries of the privilege it has bestowed upon us are somehow entitled to constant comfort certainly reflects the cardinal value of a racist, consumerist culture. But comfort for whom? And at whose expense?

One of the courses I taught at UCF was the Philosophy of Law in which Critical Legal Theory was discussed. That unit examined how the power of law could be used by dominant groups in a society to the detriment of the subordinate. Such patterns are readily observable by those willing to see them as they play out along lines of race and ethnicity, sex and gender, ability status and places of origin.

Critical Race Theory has become a bogeymen in today’s culture wars. Most who make sweeping assertions about it have little idea of what it actually is and cannot point to where they see it. But it only takes a read of the daily news to see how this moral panic has become a rationalization for policies like Florida’s that readily illustrate the role that racism plays in the exercise of power in America.

What is most ironic about this directive issued to ensure the comfort of the privileged at the expense of those it dehumanizes is that it is a textbook example of the very behaviors that critical race theory critiques. It is precisely this kind of abuse of the power of the law to benefit white people at the expense of people of color that critical race theory requires us to confront.

The truth of our collective history of slavery and the racist system it generated is troubling. It should not make anyone comfortable. But none of us are entitled to such comfort. Nor are we entitled to let ourselves off the hook from learning about it.

Harry Coverston is a retired UCF assistant lecturer.

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