“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905.
“History repeats itself endlessly for those who are unwilling to learn from the past.” Leon Brown
“Daily the Negro is coming more and more to look upon law and justice, not as protecting safeguards, but as sources of humiliation and oppression. The laws are made by men who have little interest in him; they are executed[M1] by men who have absolutely no[M2] motive for treating the black people with courtesy or consideration. …” W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
I am having difficulty processing the fact that in the dawning days of 2023, one awakens to an explicit racist affront to American citizens’ ability to think critically about racism. That is precisely what The College Board AP African American Studies course was designed to do, give American students the tools to think critically about race and racism, until it was derailed by Florida Governor, Robert DeSantis and “The Stop W.O.K.E [Stop T.R.U.T.H] Act.” It is this derailment that The Florida Standard journalists, Zac Howard’s and Josh Miller’s expose in their January 19, 2023 coverage, “Exclusive: Rejected African American Studies Course in Florida Features CRT, Intersectionality and Queer Theory.” (https://bit.ly/WOKEExclusive ). Among the first to report on The Act, they write:
“National outrage ensued after the state rejected an AP African American Studies course, but a copy of the syllabus obtained by The Florida Standard shows the course sought to teach progressive doctrines such as intersectionality and Critical Race Theory.”
As one of the many scholars who advised The College Board in the preparation of the course, I felt the AP African American Studies course was a hopeful-if-modest next step in elevating Black Studies in high school curricula.
Below, I have included an excerpt of The Act signed by Gov. DeSantis followed by my own opinion.
I offer my perspective as a Black anthropologist who works on the interface of human biology and culture. For several decades, my research and scholarship has focused on a critical examination of the social history of theories in anthropology and the sciences that connect biology, “nature,” social inequality, and behavior. I also look at the clear connections between human biology, racial ideology, public policy and the political economy of health in industrial society.
The Florida “Stop W.O.K.E Act
Below is an excerpt of the DeSantis law as presented by Howard and Miller in their article: :
In April 2022, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law known as the ‘Stop W.O.K.E Act.’ The bill was also known as the Individual Freedom Act (IFA). The law prohibits teaching or instruction that ‘espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels’ students or employees to believe any of the following eight concepts.
Prohibited teachings include:
- 1. Members of one race, color, national origin, or sex are morally superior to members of another race, color, national origin or sex.
- 2. A person by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
- 3. A person’s moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, national origin, or sex.
- 4. Members of one race, color, national origin, or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race, color, national origin, or sex.
- 5. A person by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex bears responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.
- 6. A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity, or inclusion.
- 7. A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.
- 8. Such virtues as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race, color, national origin, or sex to oppress members of another race, color, national origin, or sex ( (Howard and Miller)
Trust No One: My Counterpoint to Florida Governor DeSantis “The Stop W.O.K.E Act”
In my humble opinion, what Governor Ron DeSantis and his supporters really object to is the truth telling of African American history. They are clever enough in the language of The Act to not openly position themselves against the AP African American Studies course, since an overt obstruction of the truth would be too obvious.
But if you read the law it should be evident that it rarely describes anything about the course itself. Instead, it is an accounting of White people’s fear of discovery, which I consider to be a defensive emotional panic predicated on their sense of entitlement that they have a God-given right to make others overlook their history.
People should be wary of this law. In a nutshell, it is simply saying, “Let’s forget about the past,” and it has been my experience that when someone suggests that we put the past behind us, it is quite probable that the person is up to no good.
Why We Need an Undiluted AP African American Studies in Schools
In The Stop W.O.K.E Act list above, Number 5 of the “Prohibited teachings” is worth noting; it prohibits teaching that:
A person by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex bears responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.
This prohibition frames the act of telling the truth about the harms committed by enslaving, genocidal, and eugenical White people, as some type of cultural bullying, the latter word defined by Webster as “seek[ing] to harm, intimidate, or coerce someone perceived as vulnerable” (my emphasis). Yet, we know that most White people in this United States of America are anything but “vulnerable.” Thus, the high moral ground ascribed to the victimized White voice of The Act is false.
What The Act is intended to do is legitimize Whites being able to reap present-day benefits of historic, and ongoing, economic, political, health, and other disparities, yet not be held accountable for those actions in the past that contributed to their current collective power and financial gain.
In fact, [M3] White people have been the historic and present-day aggressors, the encroachers, the poachers, the enslavers, the bullies, staunch defenders of White Supremacy, segregation, and the ongoing oppression of Black and Indigenous people, all bolster[M4] ed by laws and systems like Jim Crow and racism that define their group privileges.
It is really ludicrous to accept the premise of The Act, which is that America’s White majority can be “harmed,” “intimidated,” and “coerced” by the simple truth telling of America’s history in the AP African American Studies course. When Black people seek only justice, White people often project their fears of retribution upon it.
According to The Act, no “White person” (who DeSantis disguises as “members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex) “…bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part.”
The societal group whose point of view DeSantis chooses not to define as “White people” in his law, however, was invented as a group identity long ago, according to archaeologist, Terrence Epperson. In his article, “Critical Race Theory and the Archaeology of the African Diaspora,” (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF03376636 ) he notes that the ancestors of those defined as “white person[s]” were first identified as such in 1691. That is the moment when the designation of “white” is invented and comes into law. Says Epperson, “white” replaces “Christian” as the term to describe those in Virginia with full human rights, giving all its members a unique entitlement to normal lives.
Because families are continuous, those in that privileged category of whiteness continue to pass down the spoils taken from Black and brown people whose own inheritance was legally denied (through slavery, Jim Crow, de facto segregation, and today persistent racist discrimination) by White people who have a vested interest in maintaining systems of inequality. Like other White Americans who live in denial, DeSantis’ shifting of fault and responsibility to the transient individual – a dead slave-holder rather than his living descendants who carry his stollen booty across generations – is evasive of the facts, shady.
The anxious behaviors described in The Stop W.O.K.E Act, whose causes are now criminalized by DeSantis, is what any social psychophysiologist would call the “normal” response when a human being recognizes that he or she has committed a wrong and seeks to make things right.
Like the victim who justly cries rape (as Harriet Jacobs does in her slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) is made to appear to be the bully (framed as those who claim “moral superiority”), anyone who promotes telling an authentic African American history are also called bullies.
Under the institution of slavery, White men were presumed to have a special legal right to rape Black girls and women. This is the history that DeSantis wants removed, and yet must be taught.
The Stop W.O.K.E Act promotes a form of false White vulnerability or what Robin DiAngelo calls, ”White Fragility.” In her popular book of the same title, DiAngelo defines it as a “range of defensive moves” by whites to “…reinstate white racial equilibrium,” in which they ALWAYS have the advantage.
The Act is intended to deny that White people ever did anything seriously wrong and have no responsibility to the past, even as they benefit from it. To accomplish such a denial of facts requires preventing any serious high school student from reading the complete stories of Black people in America. Our stories reflect a historical and continuing legacy of inequality, and serve as factual evidence of the wrongs perpetrated by Whites in the past and the present. They also make clear who is the vulnerable group.
Silencing Black History—Whose History is Next?
In my estimation, The Stop W.O.K.E Act is nothing less than an educational silencing and intellectual lynching designed to simply shut Black people’s mouths and deny the facts of their full humanity and White people’s abuses This political muzzling infringes on the free speech of Black scholars who have presented rigorous and well-documented critiques of White America; it also limits Black students’ access to a history in which they have a voice. The Act legitimizes ONLY White people’s version of history as “the truth” or as civil discourse in order to preserve the status quo of White entitlement.
Decades ago, Albert Einstein understood White people’s agenda when he published a 1946 Pageant Magazine article on racial bias entitled “The Negro.” He concluded that White Americans who believed that “the Negro” was not their equal suffered from a “fatal misconception,” and had but one simple reason for racism—to retain power over Blacks and solidify White privilege. He wrote, “The modern prejudice against Negros is the result of the desire to maintain their unworthy condition” (https://onbeing.org/blog/albert-einsteins-essay-on-racial-bias-in-1946/) . The implications for how The Act will impact the educational freedom of teachers and students are enormous and troubling. And, the question others should be asking is, whose historical lessons will be diluted next?
The College Board’s Political Farce
I consider the actions taken by The College Board (TCB) to be nothing short of a political farce. On February 2, 2023, TCB held a party at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) on the Mall in Washington, DC to celebrate the release of their new AP course. The NMAAHC as the backdrop was both symbolic and moving since its exhibits reflect the brilliant and humane “way” African Americans made “out of no way,” which is at the very heart of all courses on African American Studies.
Yet some of us were aware that behind the festivities was a festering annoyance that on February 1st and 2nd, The College Board had seemingly capitulated to DeSantis’ trumped-up fears at the eleventh hour as reported by the New York Times (NYT) (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/01/us/college-board-advanced-placement-african-american-studies.html ).
According to this article, The College Board had agreed to soften the real history in the AP African American Studies course by making the discussion of many hard facts (such as Reparations, the Black Lives Matter movement, and incarceration) ‘optional” in what is already an elective course.
Beyond disappointment, as one of the many Black scholar consultants on the AP course’s content, I had to ask myself, to whom and what should The College Board be accountable in making such changes? White fragility?
What happened next can only be described as political theater. On February 7, The College Board organized a webinar orchestrated to presumably “correct” the press coverage about its capitulation to DeSantis.
However, instead of addressing the critiques head on, TCB invited three Black faculty members to speak to the “value” of African American Studies for much of the broadcast. This is only responsive to DeSantis’ criticisms of the course as lacking ‘significant educational value.’ By the end of the broadcast, it was quite evident that The College Board intended to side-step the critiques of Black scholars and others on their watering down of the AP African American Studies course. They paraded the number of Black scholar’s work that could be found in their bibliographies, not that it was required topical content.
One person present in the webinar scoffed at the idea that the Board had yielded to DeSantis, since the AP Course changes had come a few weeks before the controversy around The Act. While that may be true, we must continue to wonder about informal conversations that might have taken place before The Act was signed into law, on which the TCB and the Florida Department of Education disagree.
And, even if it is true that no backroom deals were made, that fact alone does not absolve the Board of having seemingly succumbed to political pressure that led to weakening course content on reparations and other topics characteristically uncomfortable for White people. Moreover, during the webinar, moderated by the AP Program's White director, NO reference was made to the explicitly political changes that remained in the courses framework (on page 218, see below), which now made certain hot-button topics “optional.”
Apology Not Accepted
The College Board, after the webinar, did issue a statement entitled “Our Commitment to AP African American Studies, Scholars, and the Field.” The wording expressed “regret” for not immediately denouncing the Florida Department of Education’s slander [e.g. saying it falsely reported communications with The College Board].
TCB stated, “We should have made it clear the framework is only an outline…to be populated [by scholarship].… We should have made it clear that contemporary events like the Black Lives Matter Movement, reparations, and mass incarceration were optional topics in the pilot course.” The statement was intended to reassure that the changes made to the AP African American course occurred well before the signing of The Stop W.O.K.E Act by DeSantis.
What they failed to explain is why in an April 29th pilot of the AP course, teachers were told to pick only one such topic as optional. In the February 1st release of the framework for the AP African American Studies, there are now three optional topics; also, the choices “…can be refined by states and districts,” or denied. In other words, students might choose any of these topics, but the states and districts have the authority to deny them the ability to write Reports on any of them. According to The College Board,
“These topics are not a required part of the course framework that is formally adopted by states and defines the exam. This list is a partial one for illustrative purposes and can be refined by states and districts (under Course Framework, Project, and Exam Overview, p. 218).”
Also, marginalizing the topics of Black Lives Matter, reparations, and unjust incarceration as “current events” – therefore optional - is somewhat spurious. Doing so disconnects topics like BLM from its historical antecedent—the Black Freedom Movement that began when the first Africans were enslaved here. I see BLM as a continuation of Ida B. Wells Barnett’s anti-lynching campaigns a century ago.
Indeed, the quest for reparations is neither new nor singularly current. African Americans have sought compensation since the denial of the promised 40 acres and a mule (Special Field Orders No. 15, cited in the AP African American Studies framework). As Robin D.G. Kelley points out his February 3 The New Yorker interview with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on “The Meaning of African American Studies” (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/q-and-a/the-meaning-of-african-american-studies),
The discipline [of African American Studies] emerged from Black struggle. Now the College Board wants it to be taught with barely any mention of Black Lives Matter.
The current AP African American Studies Framework dilutes its impact by making certain topics optional by classifying them as “current events.” As Robin D.G. Kelley writes, it has also made Critical Race Theory optional on the flimsy basis that it (theory) is a “secondary” source. Would human natural history be taught without a discussion of Darwinian natural selection? I bet other AP courses include that “secondary source” abundantly. The exclusion of “secondary sources” in this case is but an evasive excuse. Marginalizing CRT and its many related ideas erases some of the brilliance of Black scholars (Black people’s intelligence) which exposes the White racism with which they contend. For the reasons cited above, I must say to The College Board, without any hesitation, Apology Not Accepted!
Link to AP African American Studies Framework by The College Board
Michael L. Blakey, PhD, is a biological anthropologist, bioarchaelogist, and science historian. He is NEH Professor of Anthropology, Africana Studies, and American Studies and Founding Director of the Institute for Historical Biology, William & Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia (https://www.wm.edu/as/anthropology/people/blakey_m.php ) . He is a member of the Scholarly Advisory Committee of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Smithsonian Institution, and was Scientific Director of the African Burial Ground Project in the City of New York.
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