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Harris says she won't debate DeSantis on new Black history standards in Florida

Supporters cheer as Vice President Harris addresses the 20th Quadrennial Convention of the Women's Missionary Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Tuesday in Orlando.
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Supporters cheer as Vice President Harris addresses the 20th Quadrennial Convention of the Women's Missionary Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Tuesday in Orlando.

Vice President Harris publicly rejected the invitation from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to debate the new standards of Black history education in the state, which say that enslaved people could have benefited from slavery.

In Orlando at a convention for the African Methodist Episcopal Women's Missionary Society, Harris attacked "extremists" for passing laws that restrict abortion and the right to vote, and said now they "attempt to erase and even rewrite the ugly parts of our history."

Without mentioning DeSantis' name, Harris said Tuesday that the invite for a roundtable on the topic was an "attempt to legitimize these unnecessary debates" about slavery.

"I'm here in Florida. And I will tell you, there is no roundtable, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact. There were no redeeming qualities of slavery," Harris said to a standing ovation from the crowd.

Harris' remarks come as a response to a letter DeSantis sent to the vice president earlier this week, where he invited her to discuss the matter.

"In Florida, we are unafraid to have an open and honest dialogue about issues. And you clearly have no trouble ducking down to Florida on short notice," DeSantis wrote.

Harris' remarks are the second time in recent weeks she's spoken on the new teaching curriculum.

On July 21, Harris delivered an impassioned speech during a somewhat impromptu visit to Jacksonville, soon after the new teaching standards were announced.

"It is not only misleading, it is false and pushing propaganda," Harris said in July. She also criticized the part of the new teaching standards that say African Americans were perpetrators in some racially motivated massacres.

How the fight is playing out on the campaign trail

Harris has gone after DeSantis in his own state multiple times.

In January, Harris marked what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade by speaking in Tallahassee, Fla., just miles from where DeSantis lives. She again did not name the governor but took aim at his claim that Florida is the state with the most freedom.

"Can we truly be free if so-called leaders claim to be 'on the vanguard of freedom' while they dare to restrict the rights of the American people and attack the very foundations of freedom?" Harris said.

The back-and-forth between the two comes as polling shows DeSantis is still significantly lagging behind former President Donald Trump, and recent shakeups in DeSantis' campaign have put the candidate on uneven ground.

Other GOP primary candidates, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, have criticized Florida's new curriculum. Scott gave DeSantis the chance to clarify his position — but DeSantis doubled down.

Last Friday, DeSantis said, "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."

Harris, meanwhile, has been increasing outreach to voters of color as the Biden reelection campaign ramps up. Her visit to Orlando was her fifth time in the Sunshine state this year.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.