If the revised framework for the Advanced Placement course in African American Studies had been the pilot program all along, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wouldn’t have objected and the proposal wouldn’t have become national news. But the College Board, which designs and administers AP classes and exams, felt the need to wave a red flag by including such “topics” as intersectionality, queer studies and Black Lives Matter in what should have ostensibly been a high-concept history class.
Now, just three weeks after Florida education commissioner Manny Diaz said no to the proposed AP course, the College Board has pulled back on polarizing subjects and divisive authors like critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw— which will now be available as areas for “independent research” alongside topics such as “black conservatism.”
The course’s development was clearly a response to the “racial reckoning” that followed George Floyd’s murder, when institutional elites, already addled by the pandemic, adopted anti-racist missions. The College Board, for its part, decided that it needed to create a college-credit class unlike any of the 35 it already offered – what its framework calls as “an interdisciplinary course that examines the diversity of African American experiences . . . with an emphasis on developing historical, literary, visual, and data analysis skills.”
Unlike traditional AP courses such as biology, calculus, or Latin, this one would integrate history, literature, art and other aspects of African American life. It would be the first “studies” AP, not a traditional academic discipline but one that mimics the identity-based departments that have proliferated across universities since the 1960s.
Was all this necessary to ensure that students know black history? In a word, no. If you read the appendix to the College Board’s original African American Studies proposal, “the top three historical developments represented on high school syllabi” were slavery, the transatlantic slave trade and the civil rights movement. The AP U.S. History course is replete with these and related subjects. Not everyone takes AP classes, but slavery and Jim Crow are also major components of standard history and social studies curricula—regardless of the current debate over woke indoctrination.
Indeed, DeSantis’s infamous “Stop WOKE Act,” which prohibits teaching critical race theory concepts in K-12 requires classroom instruction on “the history of African Americans, including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition, and the history and contributions of African Americans of the African diaspora to society.”
So when Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), on the day that Florida’s rejection hit the news, tweeted that “DeSantis wants to ban our history,” he was either misinformed or disingenuous.
But if you’re still going to have an AP African American Studies course, what would you put in it? Probably what can now be found in the revised framework, with units on (1) early African societies, (2) the slave trade and abolition, (3) Reconstruction and black codes, and (4) the civil rights movement and modern black culture. You don’t need an education doctorate to recognize that you shouldn’t give trendy topics like “intersectionality and activism” and “the reparations movement” as much space as weighty aspects of the American experience like “disenfranchisement and Jim Crow laws” and “HBCUs and black education”—which is what the initial framework did.
The original idea was surely to advance theory and ideology, not history and culture. Although some remaining topics like “gender and resistance in slave narratives” —as well as the mind-boggling absence of both Clarence Thomas and Thurgood Marshall — are still worrisome, with the ideological flourishes largely removed, opposition will likely melt away.
But even as the College Board mollifies Florida’s curriculum gatekeepers, it claims that its changes had nothing to do with criticism from politicians and pundits. CEO David Coleman asserted that teachers had complained that the more theoretical secondary sources were “quite dense,” that the polemical stuff was just bad pedagogically. Well, yes, but the timing could not be more curious.
Of course, by reversing course—for whatever reason—the company quickly fomented left-wing backlash. illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker had tweeted that he wouldn’t stand for “watering down our nation’s history . . . . to appease extremists.” Will the Land of Lincoln now reject the course?
Ultimately, the College Board has handed DeSantis a victory while inflaming the culture wars. Which is why rather than focus on radical advocacy, it should’ve stuck to black history all along.
Ilya Shapiro is the director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute and author of the Shapiro’s Gavel Substack newsletter. He’s writing a book on the illiberal takeover of legal education, to be published next year by HarperCollins.