Social Studies

Florida’s Ban on AP African American Studies, Explained

By Eesha Pendharkar — January 24, 2023 | Corrected: January 25, 2023 7 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks after being sworn in to begin his second term during an inauguration ceremony outside the Old Capitol on Jan. 3, 2023, in Tallahassee, Fla. DeSantis' administration has blocked a new Advanced Placement course on African-American studies from being taught in high schools, saying the class violates state law and that it is historically inaccurate.
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Corrected: In an earlier version of this article, the title of Amanda Vickery was incorrect. She is an associate professor.

Florida high schoolers will no longer be able to take an advanced placement course to study Black history after the state’s department of education banned the course for lacking “educational value and historical accuracy,” and allegedly violating Florida law.

The Florida Department of Education issued a letter on Jan. 12 to the College Board, the organization that develops AP courses, about its decision to ban the pilot AP African American Studies course from high schools, according to documents obtained by Education Week.

“The content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law, and significantly lacks educational value,” the letter, sent by the department’s office of articulation, said. “In the future, should College Board be willing to come back to the table with lawful, historically accurate content, FDOE will always be willing to open the discussion.”

After the course was banned, the College Board released a statement that the course had undergone “a rigorous, multi-year pilot phase, collecting feedback from teachers, students, scholars and policymakers.”

The ban was met with immediate criticism from education experts and professors, who objected to lawmakers’ attempt to censor African American history.

The White House condemned the ban, calling it “incomprehensible.”

“Every student in our nation should be able to learn about the culture, contributions, and experiences of all Americans—including Black Americans—who shaped our history,” Vice President Kamala Harris said to lawmakers on a visit to Florida.

“Unfortunately, in Florida, extremist so-called leaders ban books, block history classes, and prevent teachers from freely discussing who they are and who they love.”

It’s unclear if any teachers in Florida teaching the pilot course will have to stop immediately. The Florida Department of Education refused to further clarify what consequences the ban would have.

Florida is one of many states restricting certain lessons on race and racism

Florida is one of 18 states that have passed a law or other policy restricting certain lessons on race and racism. Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E. law also specifically bans critical race theory, and the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a collection of essays and literary works that aims to reframe Black Americans’ history and highlight their contributions to society.

Critical race theory is an academic theory that examines the systemic nature of racism, but it has been misused by Republican lawmakers to characterize and ban any diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives or lessons.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has also signed other bills, mandating librarians keep critical race theory out of instructional materials used in schools and the Parental Rights in Education, or the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which limits access to education about sexual and gender identity.

These types of bills being passed create a chilling effect on lessons about race and gender in Florida, experts have said. While Black history is required to be taught in Florida, the state has put in some hurdles that make accurate and honest lessons about it harder to teach.

“Usually what happens in Florida with these kinds of problematic, conservative-leaning bills impacting education, is that other Republican conservative states ... usually follow suit,” said Amanda Vickery, associate professor of social studies education and race in education at the University of North Texas.

“So this is, unfortunately, probably going to be something that’s going to happen. We’re going to see more and more [bans] happening across the country, which is very troubling.”

DeSantis: “Education, not indoctrination”

The Commissioner of Education, Manny Diaz, Jr., also tweeted that the course was blocked because it contained “Critical Race Theory and other obvious violations of Florida law,” and shared a document that listed sections of the proposed course that the department deemed inaccurate or unlawful.

The document lists a few excerpts from the curriculum, next to the concerns the department of education listed about the relevant excerpt. For example, about a topic entitled, “Intersectionality and Activism,” the listed department wrote: “Intersectionality is foundational to CRT and ranks people based on their race, wealth, gender, and sexual orientation.”

“The course is a vehicle for a political agenda and leaves large, ambiguous gaps that can be filled with additional ideological material, which we will not allow,” according to a statement by Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for the Governor.

The ban sends a political message to Black students that only a sanitized version of their history is acceptable in Florida, Vickery and AP tutor Jennifer Jessie said.

“Black history should not be under negotiation,” Jessie, who works with Black students in Northern Virginia, said. “Don’t call it African American history, because it’s what the Florida Legislature and College Board decides now is our history.”

In a press conference this week, DeSantis reiterated what the department of education statement said: “We want education, not indoctrination.”

He also pointed out examples of topics included in the course while defending the decision to ban it. Those topics include queer theory, intersectionality, and abolishing prisons.

“When you try to use black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes,” DeSantis said.

“One of the reasons that this AP African American Studies course is necessary is to educate young people, in a holistic way, about the history of African Americans, including those who identify today and in the past as LGBTQ,” said E. Patrick Johnson, Dean of Northwestern’s College of Communication, and one of the scholars whose research on Black Queer Studies has been named in the rejected syllabus.

DeSantis and his administration should realize that writers such as James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, whose work is listed as a concern in the department of education document, are the progenitors of what is now Black Queer Theory, Johnson said.

“It would be best that those who are not scholars of African American history to leave the question of what should and should not be included in that history to those scholars,” he said.

The College Board’s silence was “not at all surprising” to some

In its statement, the College Board did not directly address Florida’s decision to ban the course, but instead said that revising course frameworks is a normal part of developing a new AP course, and that course frameworks often change significantly as a result.

“We look forward to bringing this rich and inspiring exploration of African American history and culture to students across the country,” the board’s statement said.

The statement essentially leaves room for the College Board to modify the course to appease Florida legislators, according to Jessie, the tutor from Virginia. The organization’s lack of pushback against the objections to the proposed course is disappointing, but not surprising, she said.

“It just is not at all surprising that College Board doesn’t want to … condemn racism, doesn’t want to condemn the strict scrutiny on our history, and the freedom to tell other histories in different ways,” she said.

“This is an elective, nobody’s forcing any child to take this class. But all of a sudden, because it’s Black history, and it’s the Black community, it’s under review.”

College Board did not respond to a request for an interview, sending the statement instead.

Last March, when Florida’s anti-CRT law was passing through the legislature, the College Board warned against censorship in its AP courses.

“AP is animated by a deep respect for the intellectual freedom of teachers and students alike,” College Board said.

But this week, the organization announced that the finalized version of the course will be made public on Feb. 1 and will replace the temporary version under debate. It did not specify whether the new course would address the DeSantis administration’s concerns.

The effects on teachers and students

Academically speaking, the loss of the course is mitigated because this course was an elective, according to Jessie.

“Not having one elective is not going to dramatically change the outcomes for a lot of students,” she said. “A student’s not going to lose a lot of competitive value by not taking this elective because I think every school in Florida and every college admissions officer will be aware there’s something going on with AP electives and Florida.”

But symbolically it’s damaging: No other elective is under scrutiny, and that’s problematic, Jessie said. It sends a message that only sanitized Black history is suitable in the state, and it also does a disservice to those students who want to demonstrate their commitment to the discipline to colleges.

Teachers, on the other hand, are already nervous about teaching social studies in the current climate, said Vickery, who trains social studies teachers. Florida’s bans on lessons about race and racism make a bad situation worse.

“As teachers, we have an ethical and moral obligation to prepare students for their roles as they engage as citizens in our society, and part of that is learning how to interact with different kinds of people with different experiences and different histories,” she said.

“And part of that is we have to understand these histories—embrace these histories. If we’re not going to do that, then I’m fearful for our future.”

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