The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In blocking an AP Black studies course, DeSantis tells us who he is

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks at his inauguration ceremony Jan. 3 outside the Capitol in Tallahassee. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
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Florida’s Republican governor and presidential aspirant Ron DeSantis has made a name for himself by harassing Black voters, setting up a system to sue teachers for teaching race in ways that might offend Whites, singling out LGBTQ youth (while gagging teachers) and engaging in extreme gerrymandering to reduce the voting power of minorities.

Now he’s gone full-blown white supremacist, banning the College Board’s Advanced Placement for African American studies course from Florida’s schools.

In what is surely among its most explicitly racist actions, the DeSantis administration determined (on what basis?) that the course is “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value,” according to a Jan. 12 letter from the Florida Education Department to the College Board.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre blasted the move (while clarifying that the White House does not dictate curriculum). Jean-Pierre declared that it is “not new from what we’re seeing, especially from Florida, sadly.” She pointed out that state officials “didn’t block AP European History. … They didn’t block our art history. But the state chooses to block a course that is meant for high-achieving high school students to learn about their history of arts and culture.” She called the decision “incomprehensible.”

I hate to point out — for fear of putting a target on its back — that the University of Florida has an esteemed African American Studies program (as does virtually every other well-regarded university). “The African American Studies program is one of the fastest growing majors at UF,” the college’s website explains. “The degree program provides students with a variety of innovative courses by applying creative cultural methods of teaching while examining the African American experience.”

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The university goes on to provide the essential historical context for the program: “Before 1958, a state law in Florida banned black attendance at public universities in undergraduate, graduate and professional programs. Between 1945 and 1958, 85 black students applied for admission to all levels of UF, and all were rejected.” The University of Florida, like many institutions in the South, was the site of “massive resistance” after Brown v. Board of Education mandated desegregation:

In 1949 Virgil Hawkins was public relations director of Bethune-Cookman College at Daytona Beach when he applied to the University of Florida’s law school. Five other blacks applied with Hawkins to UF graduate and law programs, but all were refused admission. They sued in the Florida Supreme Court for an order requiring UF to admit them. The state of Florida offered to send them out of state. Also, the Board of Control voted to establish a segregated law school at [Florida A&M University]. …
The U.S. Supreme Court ordered Florida to immediately enroll [Hawkins] in 1957, but the Florida Supreme Court concluded that federal law could be superseded by state law in some instances (the now-discredited “interposition” doctrine). After appearing before the Florida Supreme Court three times and the U.S. Supreme Court twice, Hawkins entered into a consent decree (agreed judgment) and agreed to withdraw his lawsuit in exchange for the integration of U.F.’s graduate and professional schools. Mr. Hawkins eventually received his J.D. 27 years after first applying to the University of Florida.

That sad chapter in Florida history gets at the heart of the problem. This is fact-based history, and Florida did not explain how the AP course supposedly contravened state law. If it is referencing last year’s Stop WOKE Act, which blocks the teaching of material that could make students feel guilt or responsibility for historical racism, then one has to wonder whether something as simple and straightforward as the state’s own history of segregated education can be studied.

The DeSantis administration’s actions put to lie the notion that the attack on “critical race theory” is aimed at “socialist ideas” or educationally suspect pedagogy. This is about rewriting history to wipe out a critical part of our American experience, to deny the wrongs done to millions of Americans and to exempt institutions from the obligation to take a hard look at remedying past injustice.

It will be interesting to see if former senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), the new president of the University of Florida, has anything to say about this decision. It provides an early test as to whether he is a serious educator or a political hack.

In any event, DeSantis can expect more litigation over this latest move to appease the right-wing base. Janai S. Nelson, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told me, “If the new Advanced Placement Course on African American Studies violates Florida laws, as alleged by the Florida Department of Education, it only proves the unconstitutionality of the state’s laws.” Her group’s lawsuit challenging the Stop WOKE Act obtained a temporary injunction, banning it from going into effect in colleges and universities based on the First Amendment.

Historically, a key aspect of white supremacy has been the denial of Blacks’ own suffering, their historical experience and their current scholarship. It’s the ultimate expression of contempt for certain Americans as unworthy and peripheral to the story of “real” — read “White” — America. The goal here is unmistakable: eradication of African American historical experience.

“AP courses are college-level courses that, by extension, are protected under the First Amendment, and the specific targeting of African American Studies is evidence of unlawful racial discrimination,” Nelson said. “There is no question that the Florida Department of Education’s ban of AP African American Studies courses also will be challenged.”

The College Board is to be lauded for developing an AP course in African American studies. The long effort to exclude a complete history of America has left millions of Americans sadly ignorant.

I recently visited the magnificent “Great Wall of Los Angeles,” a half-mile mural begun in 1974 to tell the story of the city and state from prehistoric to modern times, including an array of outstanding African American, Latino, immigrant, LGBTQ and Native American figures and milestones in the battle for civil rights. I was horrified at the number of historically noteworthy figures I had never learned about in school, including Mifflin W. Gibbs, Mary Ellen Pleasant, William A. Leidesdorff, Biddy Mason, Jeannette Rankin and Charles Drew. (And while I had learned about the Zoot Suit Riots and the Chinese massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles, for example, they weren’t part of the K-12 curriculum.)

DeSantis and those playing to White grievance may prefer that students never learn about such figures and incidents. But considering the damage already done in under-educating Americans, perhaps African American studies (and a complete study of the diverse American experience) should be included in every K-12 curriculum for every student.

Ron DeSantis should remind us that if we want a fully aware, educated population capable of functioning as competent citizens in a diverse democracy, the rest of us need to push back against nefarious attempts to erase history.