In Ron DeSantis’s quest to be just The Worst, he and the Florida Board of Education recently changed how Black history—and slavery in particular—would be taught to the impressionable youth of their state. Now when Florida’s children learn about slavery, instead of gleaning that it was a centuries’ long atrocity of kidnapping, human trafficking, forced labor and other violent, horrifying coercions, they’ll hear that it had some upsides as a skill-building opportunity. Because if slavery wasn’t that bad, then no one has to apologize or feel sorry about it—and they definitely don’t have to pay for it.
As you, dear reader, can imagine, the backlash from historians, Black people, and decent humans everywhere was swift and loud. People picked apart these shoddy standards, protested and called out the awfulness inherent in this position, and basically reiterated that Ron DeSantis is horrible in every way. In response, DeSantis demanded a debate.
Initially, for maximum grossness, he demanded to debate Vice President Kamala Harris, who was at the forefront of the Biden Administration’s caustic rejoinder to the stated effort of deliberately misinforming American students about the original sin of our nation. As the most visible and highest ranking Black American public official, Harris wisely rejected this effort to rope her into debating the dehumanization of her ancestors (who were enslaved in Jamaica).
But another notable political figure has been signaling he’s up for it. Last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom reiterated his interest in a Fox News-hosted debate with Ron DeSantis and offered his preferred dates and locations for the potential engagement.
Newsom decided that the best way to boost his national profile wasn’t the proper and thoughtful governance of his state but—if he is to debate Ron DeSantis on the full scope of Florida’s egregious policies—engaging his white ass in a debate over the humanity of Black people. At some point in the near future, this slick honky with an LA tan is going to go on Fox News to discuss why another white man is wrong about how he’s framing the history of slavery. You can see why this is a problem.
It should go without saying that we don’t indulge “debate me” bros with actual debates. They’re not offering a fair exchange of ideas in a neutral arena with reasoned and thoughtful analysis. They’re trying to goad otherwise intelligent people into the intellectual equivalent of a cage match, where they will be pelted by bad faith talking points by a screaming sycophantic incurious pinhead in front of a hostile crowd that has a built-in conclusion about who is wrong and why. Baldwin versus Buckley this ain’t.
But more importantly, there are some topics that just aren’t debatable. VP Harris didn’t turn down the absurd invitation to discuss Florida’s new educational standards because she was afraid of losing (as former Attorney General of California, she is probably really good at arguing), but because standing on a stage to defend the reality of slavery suggests that the facts of this horrific institution and the crimes committed in its practice are merely a perspective to discuss. There is simply no version, no moment, no individual story, where slavery was a job-training program and not an inhumane system of brutal, life-stealing oppression. It doesn’t matter what angle you take or what rationalization you offer: slavery was wrong, and the devastating impacts of owning people from birth and stealing every aspect of their labor are still rippling through our society today.
Ron DeSantis knows this, just like he knows that he needs some big outrage bait to keep donors pouring cash into his money pit of a campaign. Newsom might think that he can get a win out of this situation, but it is literally designed for him to lose. And no matter what brilliant arguments he makes, studious defenses he offers, or illuminating stories he shares, Newsom will have reinforced the idea that Black people are helpless tokens in a battle between white men and our suffering can be boiled down to talking points.
It’s unlikely that Ron “Weird Creep” DeSantis gets a boost from this little stunt, but to Newsom, all I have to say is: Good luck winning the Black primary vote in 2028, sucker.