AP course tests our racial politics, too, by Clarence Page
Sometimes people who want to show you how clever they are only end up exposing their own ignorance.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stumbled into that hole in a news conference just before Black History Month as he tried to explain why he supported his education department’s rejection of an Advanced Placement African-American studies course created by the nonprofit College Board.
State officials announced in January that they had rejected the course because of six areas of concern— “Black Queer Studies,” “Intersectionality,” “Movement for Black Lives,” “Black Feminist Literary Thought,” “The Reparations Movement” and “Black Struggle in the 21st Century.”
Also blocked were works by Angela Davis; Kimberle Crenshaw, a pioneer of critical race theory; and Gloria Jean Watkins, more widely known as bell hooks, among other Black authors.
Gov. DeSantis’ objection: The board’s newly created Advanced Placement curriculum on African-American history offers a lesson on “queer theory” that may run afoul of the state’s new Parental Rights in Education law, mocked by its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Actually, that law applies mainly to third-graders and below, not so much to college-bound high schoolers.
But, asked for examples of what troubled him about the AP test, which is administered to high schoolers nationwide, the governor quickly came up with “queer theory.”
“This course on Black history,” he told reporters, “what (is) one of the lessons about? Queer theory. Now, who would say that’s an important part of Black history, queer theory? That is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids.”
Actually, I know more than a few scholars and others who would say James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Langston Hughes and Chicago’s very own Lorraine Hansberry, just to name a few iconic Black gay and lesbian figures of the recent past who would argue that “queer theory” covers an “important part of Black history”— and American history, too.
But the DeSantis administration decided earlier this month to bar high school students from taking the new course, claiming its lessons run “contrary” to the “Don’t Say Gay” law and that it “significantly lacks educational value.”
That’s when two prominent Democratic governors who, like Gov. DeSantis, are often mentioned as hopefuls for the 2024 presidential race, stepped in and suggested Gov. DeSantis should butt out.
Don’t bow to the “political grandstanding” of Gov. DeSantis or Florida’s racist and homophobic laws, wrote Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker in a strongly worded letter reported by the Chicago Sun-Times and NBC News, and “refuse to bow to political pressure that would ask you to rewrite our nation’s true, if sometimes unpleasant, history.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom took to Twitter: “DeSantis has decided Black history is irrelevant and ‘lacks educational value,’” he tweeted. “’Don’t Say Gay’ --> ‘Don’t Say Black.’”
Fortunately, the College Board released a decision that sounded downright Solomonic in balancing the concerns voiced by both sides.
Some of the most controversial names or concepts have been moved from the main curriculum to a section of optional choices, reducing the sense that certain people or ideas are being rammed down the students’ throats.
Like any great compromise, plenty remains to displease both sides but also enough for both sides to declare victory and go home—until the next historic argument.
There’s another old saying that in academic arguments, the fighting is furious because the stakes are so small. Such is not the case here, where the stakes involve the schooling of the next generations.
And, who knows? They could help decide the next president, too.
“It is astonishing,” James Baldwin once said, “that in a country so devoted to the individual, so many people should be afraid to speak.”
Surprisingly, that’s still true. In today’s political culture, people talk a lot about being afraid to speak. But a bigger problem, I find nowadays, is that too many people are afraid to think.
The writer is a syndicated columnist and senior member of the Chicago Tribune editorial board.