Image credit: AP Photo/Stephen Smith

The College Board recently announced the curriculum for its new African American Studies Advanced Placement class. Reactions have been strong. The New York Times cast the curriculum, which removes both topics and authors from its initial pilot, as a caving-in to political pressure from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who had announced in January that his state’s schools would not teach the class. The College Board itself has challenged that characterization, insisting that its curriculum still makes room for all of the important thinkers and topics integral to African American history. But as the Associated Press has pointed out, in many cases the figures or issues that Florida and other states have complained about have been made optional. 

For instance, as reported by Axios, Black Lives Matter is no longer required as a topic of instruction, though many would argue the work of that movement has been instrumental in building a case for an African American Studies AP class in the first place. Likewise, where the pilot class had included the topics of reparations, queer studies, and the modern-day mass incarceration of Black people, now these are mentioned only as possible research paper topics. The Color Purple author Alice Walker is no longer on the syllabus; neither are major African American thinkers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, or Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality,” one of the central concepts of African American Studies. Schools can teach these authors and subjects if they wish, but they are not required. Students will not be held responsible for them on the AP test.

Mark Naisson, Professor of History and African & African American Studies, Fordham Univeristy

Should a class that doesn’t require some of the major figures and ideas of African American history be able to count for AP credit? Is it even worth offering the class if significant elements and voices of that history have been pushed out or to the margins? Isn’t that an example of precisely the kind of oppression that African American historians study?

I spoke to Fordham University African & African American Studies and History professor Mark Naison about these questions and the College Board decision.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What’s your reaction to the College Board decision?

A lot of people saw what happened as a direct response to DeSantis banning the course. But as it turned out, the College Board made its decision well before DeSantis’s announcement, because they expected this to happen. They knew in advance, not necessarily that this reaction would come from DeSantis, but that it could come from any number of state education departments. Because this is something that has been coordinated on a national basis.

What do you mean by “coordinated”?

It starts with Chris Rufo, who is associated with the Manhattan Institute [a conservative think tank]. About two years ago he discovered there were anti-racism training sessions being carried out in corporations and government agencies that drew upon this arcane legal theory known as critical race theory in ways that put pressure on white people to renounce their complicity with structural racism in America. These kinds of trainings were introduced in many parts of the country in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

What Rufo decided, in some ways brilliantly, was that this could be a wedge issue for Republicans to put the whole Black Lives Matter movement on the defensive. All over the country there were conservatives who were up and arms over a number of issues already, including gender and LGBTQ issues. [The argument now was] to say there was an offensive in our schools on the part of extreme leftists to make our children feel guilty about their racial identity as well as to get them to start talking about issues of gender and sexuality at an inappropriate age.

So what you have is a number of conservative groups who mobilized around a variety of symbols of leftist subversions of public education, one being critical race theory, which as it turned out was a total false flag; almost nobody uses it in K-12 education. The 1619 Project is another flashpoint term, and the term “intersectionality” is a third.

So here is the College Board, they have developed a course which originally includes all the major scholars in the discipline, and some of the subjects that you would confront in college African American history program—queer theory, intersectionality, the issue of reparations, the Black Lives Matter movement.

But the College Board starts realizing, I think as early as six months ago, that they were going to run into a conservative buzzsaw if they didn’t modify the course. So what they decide to do is to move anything controversial to the supplemental levels of the course, and keep it out of the required section.

Help me with a couple terms. First, “Critical Race Theory:” Am I correct in understanding that this term isn’t actually used by African American historians?

Critical race theory has virtually nothing to do with African American history. It has a lot to do with legal theory, which is where it had its origins. But it’s never been used in my department. I’m a historian: what I tell my students is you don’t try to do research to fit a theory. You do research to try to create a more complete narrative than currently exists. Political scientists and sociologists may be much more concerned with theory. Historians are much more concerned with narratives.

The minute I saw this critical race theory metaphor being developed, I thought it was the beginning of a broad-based reaction against Black Lives Matter as it has impacted education and public policy. Every time Black people in America have stepped forward, there’s been a backlash. Remember All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter?

But critical race theory, as ridiculous as it sounds, proved to be the most effective mobilizing point of the right.

Why do you think that is? All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter seem so much easier to understand and rally around than “Stop Critical Race Theory.”

But protecting children is a much more powerful impulse than protecting police. It was made to seem that Black Lives Matter morphed into an attack on our children, an attempt to hold our children hostage to anti-racist pedagogy that would make them feel terrible about being white, and then make them feel terrible about being straight. The protection of children ended up being the wedge issue.

How would you define intersectionality? And what is its significance to African American History?  

Intersectionality is about how different layers of power reinforce one another in a society, the interplay between race, class, and gender. It is absolutely at the center of the methodology of African American studies research. It is talked about constantly in our courses.

I’ve wondered if the problem that conservatives have with the term is that they hear it without knowing what it means and think it has something to do with sex. 

Yes! I think that instinct is absolutely right. We’re dealing with fearful people who think that they’re losing their country and their children are about to be smothered by leftist propaganda.

Cathy Brigham [Executive Director for Academic Relations at the College Board] told me they’re keeping in the substance of intersectionality, but taking out the name. They desperately want this course to be taught in the red states, so they’re trying to sneak in the content that’s rejected as much as they can but avoiding all the buzz words.

What kind of reaction have you seen among your peers?

They’re absolutely enraged, as they should be. The scholars being removed are some of the top scholars in the field, taught in every African American Studies program in the country. And the concepts that were excised are also in varying degrees central to what the discipline talks about.

To me, it’s an unacceptable concession to political pressure.  You don’t make concessions to bullies. These people are trying to intimidate the College Board, and they succeeded.

They damn well are not going to intimidate us at Fordham, or people at Harvard, Princeton, the University of Miami, Amherst. You’re not going to change the discipline and how it’s taught and how it’s researched. That ship left the port a long time ago.

Would you say that’s the goal, to shut down discourse even at the university level?

Yes. They start out with the low-hanging fruit in the red states, the public schools, then they aim at the universities. If they can get away with it in Florida, they take aim in Virginia and North Carolina, and then see what they can do nationally. This is classic fascism to me.

If the class isn’t going to require the instruction of major movements and authors of the area, should it still be able to count for college credit?

Here’s the thing: you can teach the course, if you’re in, say, Wisconsin, with all the authors who were left out, and all the subjects. You have that option. So that’s what the College Board will say: if you want to, you can teach a course that meets all the rigorous standards of Af Am studies at Fordham, that includes all the issues and authors. But you can only do that in some states.

And the test won’t cover those topics or authors, right?

That’s true. And that presents a dilemma to the universities. Do you accept a watered-down, diluted course that gives in to book banners and censors? It’s a very interesting question. College Board would say that any African American history is better than none. We’re getting this in places where it’s needed, even in a diluted form.

I understand what they’re trying to do. But I can’t accept it. You’re giving into book banning. And when you go there, you discredit yourself among everybody who takes scholarship and learning seriously.

And you may lose anyway. When all is said and done, African American history itself is what is most threatening. You make concessions, they’ll ask for more concessions. They’ll want to get rid of African American history, they’ll want to get rid of ethnic studies, they’ll want to get rid of anything but a sanitized version of ‘We’re all the same in America.’

You can’t give an inch to these people. They’re not trying to get rid of critical race theory, they’re trying to get rid of discourse about race. And then quickly it expanded to gender and sexuality. I hate to say it, but it’s like Chamberlain and Hitler. You can’t appease these people. You have to dig in and fight.

Now for a lot of people in education that’s not a natural impulse. For me, it is. I grew up in Brooklyn. We don’t back down from bullies. 

It sounds like you’re saying that some of these conservative movements try to use educators’ general inclination to be respectful and open to dialogue against them.  

We’re dealing with a lot of people, especially on the right, who think that leftists and liberals are soft. They’ll melt. They’re snowflakes.

I carry the attitude, if you have something worth protecting you have to fight for it. And I think we have something worth protecting in terms of all the research we’ve done and all the work we’ve made in creating spaces where people who were once marginalized feel like they have a voice. I’m not going to let right-wing thugs take that over. They’ll have to come through me to do that.

And I figure if I do that, maybe others will too.

I understand what the College Board is doing, but I’m here to say, no more. I’m going to defend my research. I’m going to defend my discipline, I’m going to defend my colleagues. I’m going to defend my students, I’m going to defend people who are vulnerable because of their race, gender or sexual orientation. And if it means I have to get in a fight, well, I’ve been doing that all my life.

Jim McDermott is a freelance writer based in New York City.