Opinion: DeSantis balked, College Board blinked on Black studies class

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In an advanced class on African American studies, it might seem high school students would be well served if they discussed the contention, “We are a society that has been structured from top to bottom by race. You don’t get beyond that by deciding not to talk about it anymore. It will always come back; it will always reassert itself over and over again.”

Students won’t have the opportunity because the speaker is Columbia University law professor Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, one of the most prominent scholars on race and racism in America today. Nor will students explore the views of acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates on the persistence and pervasiveness of racism.

These noted African American scholars and writers and their work have been axed from the AP’s curriculum for its new African American Studies class, which is being piloted this year in 60 high schools, including Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High School. The pilot will be greatly expanded in the 2023-2024 school year.

The pilot drew the ire of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who said the course promoted a political agenda that included Black feminism, reparations, queer theory and abolishing prisons. “We want to do history, and that’s what our standards for Black history are. It’s just cut and dried history. You learn all the basics you learn about the great figures, and you know, I view it as American history. I don’t view it as separate history,” said DeSantis at a recent press conference.

With a possible presidential race in his future, DeSantis, a Republican, is casting himself as an antidote to liberal dogma gone wild and a champion of the pasteurized America of TV sitcoms where mostly white families have Sunday dinners, a quirky grandpa, and at least one Black friend. If police brutality and racism exist in that worldview, they are aberrant, not systematic.

In a Jan. 12 letter to the College Board, which oversees the AP program, the Florida Department of Education rejected the African American Studies course, saying the material was “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”

Last week, the College Board released its final framework for African American Studies. It eliminated readings about Black feminism, critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement, but denied it capitulated to DeSantis.

“No one is excluded from this course: the Black artists and inventors whose achievements have come to light; the Black women and men, including gay Americans, who played pivotal roles in the civil rights movement; and people of faith from all backgrounds who contributed to the antislavery and civil rights causes,” said College Board CEO David Coleman, in a statement.

The rebuttals were immediate. “Coming in the current political climate, the proposed changes appear to be an effort to dilute the curriculum, a capitulation to education censors for political expediency,” said Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, which advocates for free expression and fights censorship.

A letter of protest signed by 600 African American Studies faculty including Georgia college professors stated, “We will not mince words. The contention that an AP curriculum in African American Studies ‘lacks educational value’ is a proposition supported by white supremacist ideology, because it fundamentally demeans the history, culture, and contributions of Black people. It echoes other ongoing efforts across the United States to purge the public sphere of any mention of ‘divisive concepts,’ or any conversation about the enduring fact of racism in the history of this nation, this hemisphere and this world.”

DeSantis and his allies acknowledge slavery occurred, but they prefer it be presented in the context of the past and not as a legacy that continues to undermine America’s promise of equality and equal protection under the law.

That means students won’t consider the ideas that Crenshaw presented in her groundbreaking 1988 paper “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law.”

In what became the underpinnings of critical race theory, Crenshaw wrote: “If whites believe that Blacks, because they are unambitious or inferior, get what they deserve, it becomes that much harder to convince whites that something is wrong with the entire system.”

Here is another quote that the AP class will not get to discuss as it comes from the 1995 book “Killing Rage: Ending Racism” by bell hooks, who researched the intersection of racism and sexism and who was also removed from the course framework — “All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity.”