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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Social Studies Opinion

DeSantis’ Take on AP African American Studies Was Principled. The Media’s Response Was Not

What were the concerns and how were they framed
By Rick Hess — March 13, 2023 5 min read
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I occasionally take up reader queries. If you’d like to send one along, just send it to me, care of Caitlyn Aversman, at caitlyn.aversman@aei.org.

Dear Rick,

In following this winter’s fight over AP African American Studies, I’ve grown more and more frustrated. It seems like Republican politicians are either flat-out bigots who want to strip African American history from schools or demagogues willing to tell bigoted supporters what they want to hear. Either way, I don’t see how any decent person can be anything but outraged. I’ve read your Common Ground book with Pedro Noguera and a number of your back-and-forth blogs with him. You seem like a reasonable conservative. So, I’m hoping you’re as troubled by what DeSantis and the Republicans are doing as I am. Are you?


A Concerned Educator

Thanks for your thoughtful query and the kind words. It’s a hugely important topic, and I’m glad you raised it.

First, the short answer: No. I’m not troubled by what Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is doing or the objections to Advanced Placement African American Studies. In fact, I shared many of the concerns he raised.

Now, the long answer. My experience is that the press has generally offered a stilted, inaccurate picture of what this debate is all about. As I’ve documented, media coverage related to “critical race theory” has tends to mischaracterize substantive concerns and skew the debate. To my mind, the punditry has been dominated by takes that are both dubious and unfair. I mean, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin accused DeSantis of mounting a “full-blown white supremacist” attack on “fact-based history.” The New York Times featured the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund declaring in an opinion piece, “Florida is at the forefront of a nationwide campaign to silence Black voices” and “erase” African American history.

But these thunderous, ubiquitous denunciations were, I think, both inaccurate and unfair. American slavery and the civil rights movement are (quite appropriately) among the most extensively covered topics in American history classes today, and there’s widespread, bipartisan support for this state of affairs. This winter, More in Common polling found that over 90 percent of Republicans say that Americans have a responsibility to learn from the mistakes of our nation’s past and over 70 percent think schools should teach the specific history of African American, Hispanic, and Native Americans alongside our shared national history. More than 4 out of 5 Republicans say social studies textbooks should discuss topics like the slave ownership among many Founding Fathers and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

And Florida’s “Stop WOKE” law, for instance, specifically stipulates that students study “the civil rights movement” and “the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping.” Contrary to what’s been reported, the debate isn’t about teaching what happened in Selma or Montgomery. So, to my mind, the clash hasn’t been about bigotry so much as the ideological and political tilt of the pilot AP African American Studies framework.

Here’s what I mean: Florida asserts that the objectionable topics in the pilot framework included Intersectionality and Activism, Black Queer Studies, Post-Racial Racism and Colorblindness, and The Reparations Movement. Whatever one’s take on these theoretical camps and political movements, I don’t think that taking issue with them is tantamount to “silenc[ing] Black voices” or opposing “fact-based” history. Moreover, the readings were remarkably one-sided—giving students only the progressive perspective on fraught topics like reparations, colorblindness, and intersectionality.

When the College Board announced the revised course framework, the changes actually broadened and deepened the history. The political elements were pared back while new coverage was offered of Black Political Gains, Demographic and Religious Diversity in the Black Community, and Black Achievement in Science, Medicine, and Technology. Republicans have welcomed the revisions as expanding the history and paring the polemics.

And that, I think, is the issue. The objections weren’t to robust, inclusive African American history. The fight was over whether the course should embody “anti-racist” dogma—such as that espoused by Nikole Hannah-Jones, architect of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project (who describes America as a “slavocracy”), or by Ibram X. Kendi, best-selling author (who teaches that America’s founding documents were fundamentally racist). If you’re a fan of the Hannah-Jones/Kendi worldview, that’s your prerogative, but that’s actually not how most parents, taxpayers, and classroom teachers think history should be taught. I mean, more than 90 percent of Democrats say that all students should learn how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution advanced freedom and equality.

The problem is that the media coverage led people to think the fight was about whether to teach African American history rather than how to teach history—and that has sowed confusion and toxic distrust. What’s the basis for this claim? Well, in late 2021, when the critical race theory fights were raging, I examined a year’s coverage of coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.

Every single story mentioned the question of whether or not to discuss racism, even though this isn’t controversial (consider that Florida’s “anti-CRT” law mandates discussion of racism). Remarkably, good-faith objections about the premises and practices associated with CRT were almost wholly ignored. If you don’t think there are grounds for legitimate concerns, recall that Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk observed in 2021, “Critical race theory emerged out of postmodernist thought, which tends to be skeptical of the idea of universal values, objective knowledge, individual merit, Enlightenment rationalism, and liberalism.”

So, how frequently did news stories mention such considerations? Well, when major media wrote about CRT, this explicit rejection of equality, rationality, and objectivity was discussed in less than 10 percent of news accounts. CRT’s rejection of “colorblind” thinking was mentioned in barely 10 percent. In short, one could have read almost the whole of coverage in the nation’s leading newspapers and concluded there was nothing more to the CRT fight than whether schools should teach students about segregation. And that was both misleading and destructive. The result was that even a close observer of the debate had little opportunity to understand or assess the objections voiced by DeSantis or others.

Ultimately, I’d say that I’m generally supportive of what DeSantis did here but deeply troubled by how his sensible concerns were caricatured by the coverage of the dispute.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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