Following the rise of social justice movements in the summer of 2020, particularly the revitalization of the Black Lives Matter movement, the College Board announced in August of 2022 that it will be piloting a new Advanced Placement (AP) African American studies course in about 60 high schools. Officially offered nationwide in the 2024-2025 school year, the multidisciplinary course will address the history of African kingdoms and the slave trade, modern-day theories on Black feminism and present-day social movements, and the works of prominent Black authors and artists. This acknowledgement of African American history and culture by such an influential American education institution represented a step towards undoing the whitewashing of America’s history and towards amplifying Black voices and reclaiming Black power.
In January of 2023, Florida governor Ronald DeSantis heavily criticized the College Board’s drafted curriculum for the new AP course. At a press conference in Jacksonville, he expressed his belief “in teaching kids facts and how to think” rather than having “an agenda imposed on[to] them when [one] tr[ies] to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory.” Queer theory here is negatively connoted as the governor signed three bills in 2022 that prohibited the teaching of sexuality and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. He continued that “we have history in lots of different shapes and sizes […] But abolishing prisons being taught to high school kids as if that’s somehow a fact? No, no, that’s not appropriate.” Under his leadership, Florida’s department of education (ED) announced that it would ban the course. They cited reasons like rejecting the indoctrination of students, refusing to push a political agenda onto students, and the course violating the state’s Stop W.O.K.E. Act, which regulates how race-related topics are taught in public schools. Less than two weeks later, the College Board released the official curriculum, now stripped of authors like Angela Davis and bell hooks, and topics like Black feminism, reparations, and mass incarceration. Black conservatism was then added as an optional topic for a research project. The organization alleged that their revisions were not a response to G.O.P. backlash and “has been shaped only by the input of experts and long-standing AP principles and practices.” However, Florida’s ED reported that the state and the organization have had back and forth discussions since September of 2022. While the dispute between Florida’s ED and the College Board has gotten muddy, it is important to contextualize this move in a historic period of extreme political polarization.
In recent years, conservatives have taken it upon themselves to fight the teaching of “critical race theory” (CRT) in schools. CRT is an analytical framework to understand how race shapes laws, institutions, and history. It views racism as embedded in our legal system, rather than it being an individual, isolated prejudice. For example, an observer using the lens of CRT would look at the disproportionate rates of low homeownership rates, poverty, illness in minority communities and attribute it as the lingering effects of the white supremacist and discriminatory housing practice of “redlining” in the 1930s, in which the federal government racially-targeted and color-coded neighborhoods by riskiness of mortgages and by credit worthiness. Yale professor Daniel HoSang puts that CRT allows us to understand these processes and effects as systemic rather than as results of “any one person’s biases and prejudices.” However, the anti-CRT movement, consisting mostly of parents, would characterize such attribution and such thinking as “unpatriotic,” “divisive,” and “racist.” Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk, for example, defines CRT and systemic racism as the belief that racism is “in our DNA,” and that itself is “the most racist thing […] being spread in popular life in America.” The anti-CRT movement views the framework as radical indoctrination, and that the children will be immobilized by identifiers like “the oppressed and the good” versus “oppressor and the bad” based on the color of their skin. This reflects how the movement takes personal offense to critiques of a larger system under which everyone, arguably, suffers. The backlash against select topics in AP African American Studies echoed these sentiments as proponents similarly characterize the course as radicalizing. DeSantis has even more to gain by allying himself with the anti-CRT crowd as he builds a strong foundation ahead of potentially announcing his candidacy for the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination. Anti-CRT and anti-Black studies beliefs also reveal a greater racialized moral panic amongst the politically powerful as they scramble to hold onto, perpetuate, and justify whatever legitimacy of their power they have left by erasing American history.
Moral panic is a widespread irrational fear that something poses a threat to the values, safety, and interests of the greater society. Here, conservatives are experiencing a moral panic as they fear that critical race theory and learning about Black history will threaten American values. Moral panics are directed by moral entrepreneurs, or individuals and organizations who seek to guide people into upholding the status quo. This fear is reflected in prominent anti-CRT activist Christopher Rufo’s op-ed published by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. He claimed that “[c]ritical race theorists reject the founding principles of the United States,” like “equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” His leadership in the panic is further evident in his piece as he incited readers to fear CRT’s potential takeover of American and the subsequent abolition of the United States.
DeSantis is a moral entrepreneur in his own right: he is inflicting intellectual and political violence against education and thereby the American public to reinforce the legitimacy of his power. With his educational background decorated with elite institutions like Yale and Harvard Law and his status as a Navy veteran, he wields credibility and a strategic mind as his weapons of choice. As his attack strategy, he instills fear into the public that a critique of America necessarily means an anarchist revolution. For example, 2 years after unfounded evidence of voter fraud incited the January 6th riots, DeSantis passed a bill that would enable prosecutions of election crimes such that even honest mistakes regarding voter eligibility would be punishable. He also prohibited any instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade as it was “inappropriate” to teach kids that “they can be whatever they want to be.” He demonstrates his leadership as a moral entrepreneur as red states are passing bills of the same nature in his wake.
Although the College Board certainly has its shortcomings, DeSantis’ attack on the organization does not reflect intentions of wanting the best for the country’s children. Instead, his characterization of Black studies as a “political agenda” reveals his underlying fear of Black power and of subsequently losing his own power. Therefore, he masquerades his fear as a morally righteous call for unity under patriotism, for racial neutrality, and for the separation of politics and factual history. The reality and the facts are that racial equality does not exist, and may not ever exist. Extreme disparities in wealth, health, and general life outcomes are deeply rooted in race. Black women experience 2 to 3 times higher rates of maternal mortality due to inadequate health insurance coverage, access to care, and longstanding racism in the medical field. Black youth are 4 times more likely to be detained or committed in juvenile facilities than their white peers as they are subjected to a lack of institutional funding and resources that lead to low-performing public schools and over-policing. In addition to these socially immobilizing external factors, racial equality may also be unachievable as the mere construction and attribution of “race” fundamentally stems from the desire for power. In the late 17th century, colonial leaders in America homogenized all Europeans, regardless of class, into a “white” category and subjected all Africans into a system of permanent slavery as there was an urgent need for cheap labor and for immediate control over the agitated poor. This classification was quickly imbued with moral meanings as the white race was perceived as “superior” and the others “inferior.” DeSantis hypocritically undermines unity by denying students a collective understanding of how this country has historically used, and continues to use, race as justification for the atrocities committed and the power obtained. It is the students’ rights to learn and to do what they will with this piece of information.
Here lies the fundamental principles of education: lean into discomfort, challenge the faculties of the mind, and build one’s morality and identity in a world of complexity. Any attempt to obstruct this process is a gross abuse of authority and an act of violence. Students should respond and react accordingly by recognizing that their right to information and education is continuously jeopardized, and by rejecting the subjugation to ignorance through direct action.