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The College Board defended its actions: The course had not been altered in response to criticism from Florida; it had been done in a manner consistent with AP policies and solely by the faculty members and teachers working to develop the curriculum. And the controversial topics had not been scrubbed entirely from the course — they were to be placed in an online portal where they could be chosen for a required project.
That rationale induced eye-rolling from the College Board’s critics, who thought that the timing strained credulity and that the course-material shakeup was an obvious scheme to appease conservatives. As the New York Times reporter and “1619 Project” leader Nikole Hannah-Jones presciently tweeted, “This response by the College Board, caving to bad-faith attacks by conservatives” and letting them determine “the proper way to examine the Black experience, will only encourage more of this.”
The College Board initially said that AP African American studies had not been revised to placate DeSantis. Two professors who worked on the course — Kerry L. Haynie and Teresa Reed — wrote that “despite the claims from various quarters, no state or district has yet seen these materials, let alone influenced our deliberations and decisions about what topics to include.” When NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly asked if the course had been revised to satisfy DeSantis, the College Board’s chief executive, David Coleman, had a simply reply: “No.” But when she asked if it was a coincidence that the contested materials had been moved to optional projects, Coleman gave a rambling answer about AP policies.
Then, last week, the conservative website The Daily Caller detailed communications between the Florida Department of Education, known as the FDOE, and the College Board. State officials had suggested that the original curriculum violated Florida law, although they had not said precisely how. They then claimed credit for the removal of material. And in fulfillment of Hannah-Jones’s prophecy, they suggested that they still wouldn’t approve the course if the contested material were made available online, even if it were optional.
Once again, Lucy pulls the football. And once again, higher ed is Charlie Brown.
On Saturday the College Board released yet another memo, portraying itself as an idealistic victim of a cynical state government. “We have made the mistake of treating FDOE with the courtesy we always accord to an education agency, but they have instead exploited this courtesy for their political agenda,” the College Board announced. “We were naïve,” it wrote. “We deeply regret not immediately denouncing the Florida Department of Education’s slander.”
The College Board also defended itself against Florida’s characterization of an influence campaign. “We had no negotiations about the content of this course with Florida or any other state,” it said. “Florida is attempting to claim a political victory by taking credit retroactively for changes we ourselves made but that they never suggested to us.” The memo also said the evolution of the course was “a significant improvement, rather than a watering down.”
Pressure is coming from scholars of African American studies. The historian Robin D.G. Kelley, one scholar whose material was de-emphasized, told Vox that “you cannot have a nonpolitical African American studies course because its whole invention, its raison d’être, came out of political struggle. You can’t professionalize something that was actually created in the midst of protests.”
The historian Glenda Gilmore has written in depth on the myth of the “good protest,” which recasts the civil-rights movement in terms more palatable to white conservatives. “The civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s achieved a lot, but it did not establish a just and equal society. That work is ongoing. And it’s that work that conservatives want to stop,” she told me by email. “One way to stop change for the better is to erase the history of struggle and progress in the past. The push to devalue or eliminate the AP African American Studies course is aimed at doing that … The College Board should know better than to fall for this.”
Kelley was equally adamant in Vox. “We missed an opportunity to say, ‘You know what, critical race theory is not taught in elementary, junior high school, and most high schools — but it should be.’” Critical race theory, Kelley continued, could help explain the murder of Tyre Nichols or how a committee of Black scholars, dealing with political pressure, could create a watered-down course.
“Black studies is about Blacks being agents in the theory of history and the reconceptualizing of the world, in the conception of knowledge,” Gerald Early, a professor of English and African American studies, told me in an email. “Black studies was always meant to be a challenge to the white assumptions about the construction of knowledge and about the theoretical claims and political uses of the white deployment of knowledge. This is what ultimately makes many whites uneasy about Black studies, the extent of its challenge.”
The whole situation is tragic. It’s painful to see Black studies experience the same devaluing that it has already endured in the struggle to be embraced in higher ed. The College Board is in a very difficult position. It’s reasonable and commendable to want students in conservative states to benefit from the course. Even in its altered state, it’s an outstanding course with material that everyone should see. But the course’s botched rollout just gave conservatives an easy victory.
In the end, DeSantis is going to get what he wants. Florida will pull the football by refusing to adopt the course, even with the changes. If Coleman didn’t know this was going to happen, he wasn’t paying attention. DeSantis recently sent a “landing team” to New College of Florida to rescue it from “cultural hostage takers.” If those conservative tactics and incursions into higher ed are appeased or made the best of, they will only be amplified and repeated.
It’s time to stop falling for this. Every time college and university administrators or organizations like the College Board try to placate conservative actors, they get played. Like many other administrators, I learned this the hard way. It’s time to stop playing into the hands of the culture warriors. It’s time to stop accommodating malign politicians or giving them the benefit of the doubt. It’s time to stop trying to kick the football.