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DeSantis rocked by Black Republican revolt over slavery comments

The bitter fight between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Rep. Byron Donalds over a line about slavery in the state’s revised African American history standards is infuriating several prominent Black conservatives.

Several told POLITICO they fear the issue will play into Democrats’ characterization of Republicans as favoring a whitewashing of American history. Most saw it as an unforced error at the time when Black Republicans feel they’ve been making significant strides within the party.

“It raises eyebrows,” said Diante Johnson, president of the Black Conservative Federation, who is supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. “Ron DeSantis is not the candidate for Black conservatives and that’s what [he] constantly, constantly exhibits to us.”

At issue are the new education standards for how Black history is taught in Florida schools that DeSantis signed into law last year. The revised guidelines, released this month, require educators to instruct middle schoolers that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Donalds, who largely praised the guidelines as “good, robust and accurate,” took issue with the idea of “personal benefit” and said that part is “wrong and needs to be adjusted.” Donalds supported DeSantis for governor but has backed Trump in the presidential primary.

That prompted an onslaught from the DeSantis camp. Christina Pushaw, the director of rapid response for the DeSantis presidential campaign, mused, “Did Kamala Harris write this tweet?” referencing the vice president’s recent trip to Florida, in which she denounced the new standards.

DeSantis dug in, disparaging his fellow Republican with one of the worst insults one can lob: comparing him to a Democrat. “Are you going to side with Kamala Harris and liberal media outlets or are you going to side with the state of Florida?”

To some prominent Black Republicans, it was a DeSantis misstep. And one that comes as his campaign is attempting to jump-start its flagging operation.

“It’s just not a good position for the DeSantis campaign to take. And they’re doubling down and that’s what’s even more disgusting,” said the Black Conservative Federation’s Johnson.

In recent days, allies of former President Donald Trump rushed to Donalds’ defense, characterizing the DeSantis camp pushback as a smear campaign.

“As the direct descendent of a slave, I have a hard time understanding Governor DeSantis’ position that transferrable skills learned in bondage are somehow a net benefit,” said Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-Texas), an ally of Donalds. “If Ron DeSantis spent more time doing the job the people of Florida elected him to do and less time on his failing Presidential campaign, perhaps Florida’s curriculum on slavery would more accurately reflect the pain and heartbreak experienced by millions who suffered through the original sin.”

For another of DeSantis’ rivals in the presidential primary, the controversy provided an opening. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is among the five Black GOP members of Congress, added to the chorus of Black conservatives criticizing DeSantis for supporting Florida’s revised educational standard.

“There is no silver lining in slavery,” Scott said. “Slavery was really about separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives. It was just devastating.”

DeSantis responded to Scott on Friday, once more by accusing him of echoing Harris.

“Part of the reason our country has struggled is because D.C. Republicans all too often accept false narratives, accept lies that are perpetrated by the Left,” he said during a swing through Iowa. “And to accept the lie that Kamala Harris has been perpetrating even when that has been debunked, that’s not the way you do it.”

Rep. John James (R-Mich.) scolded DeSantis for responding to Donalds and Scott. “There are only five black Republicans in Congress and you’re attacking two of them. My brother in Christ, if you find yourself in a deep hole put the shovel down.”

Longtime Republican strategist Deana Bass Williams, who worked on Ben Carson’s presidential campaign, lauded Donalds for his restraint. “They should be grateful that Congressman Donalds did not torch them,” said Williams, who is neutral in the GOP presidential primary.

Donalds is rumored to be considering a gubernatorial run in Florida in 2026.

Mandie Jones, a longtime Republican strategist in Florida and former aide to former Republican Gov. Rick Scott, now the Sunshine State’s junior senator, did not read too much into the public rift between DeSantis and Donalds, and added there are some advantages to this war of words.

“This in particular is beneficial to the larger discussion of race and politics,” Jones said. “This is the type of stuff that in the primary we get to see those nuances in the conversation.”

Many Black Republicans find themselves in a quandary: on the one hand having to push back on perceptions that slavery has positive attributes, but also fighting the perception that if they voice criticism, it leads to questions of whether they are sufficiently conservative.

Harrison Fields, Donalds’ spokesperson, captured this in a tweet. “If you condemn CRT & refuse to support BLM, black Republicans are called a coon, sellouts, & Uncle Clarence. If you vocalize minor distaste with a sentence in a curriculum that lauds skills developed by slaves during slavery, black Republicans are called Democrats and frauds,” he said.

Mostly, Black conservatives sounded frustrated they’ve been thrust into the conversation on the merits and benefits of slavery at all.

CJ Pearson, a Black Gen Z conservative activist said, “I think it’s absurd we’re having a debate about whether slavery was good for Black people in 2023.”

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Author: POLITICO