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White House: Florida ban on African American studies course is 'incomprehensible'

WASHINGTON — Florida’s ban on teaching an advanced placement course on African American history is “incomprehensible,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Friday, in the latest dispute between the Biden administration and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely presidential nominee who has energized conservatives with his eagerness to engage in the culture wars.

Jean-Pierre’s statement comes a day after the public release of a letter Florida’s education department sent last week to the College Board, which administers AP courses and exams. The letter said that the new African American history course would not be taught in the state’s schools because of concerns that it would become, in the words of DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin, “a vehicle for a political agenda,” as furor over the announcement mounted.

For the most part, decisions about education are made on state and local levels, but political polarization and social media have effectively nationalized the conversation about schooling, especially when that conversation includes issues of gender and race. “It is not our place to direct or be involved in any school curriculum. But this is concerning,” Jean-Pierre said.

In a statement emailed to Yahoo News, DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said the “study of African American history is not only permitted in Florida under [DeSantis] but required by law.”

“In fact,” Griffin said, “the teaching of African American History has been expanded in Florida since Governor Ron DeSantis took office.”

Karine Jean-Pierre
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in the briefing room on Friday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The decision on the African American history course appears to be part of DeSantis’s campaign to make Florida the state where “woke comes to die,” as the governor is fond of saying. Attorneys and other officials in his administration have defined wokeness as a reference to “systemic injustice,” particularly in the criminal justice system.

The dispute between the White House and DeSantis over education-related issues began at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when the Florida governor resisted mask mandates for children in schools.

As the pandemic subsided, the animosity persisted.

Early last year, President Biden criticized DeSantis for what he called a “hateful” law that would make it difficult, if not impossible, to teach or discuss sexual orientation in the classroom. Although the law’s supporters said it was designed to protect young children from inappropriate materials and concepts, the measure’s language was vague enough to have a widespread chilling effect.

In March 2022, DeSantis oversaw passage of a new law that allowed parents to challenge school reading lists, course materials and library collections. The measure appeared to cater to a burgeoning movement of conservative parents angry at the state of American schools.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis after signing the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., April 22, 2022. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

“They have banned more books in schools and libraries than almost every other state in the country,” Jean-Pierre said on Friday. In fact, Florida ranks second in the number of book bans implemented by states, according to a recent PEN America report. Texas is first.

Many of Florida’s educational policies in the last two years appear to have been guided by Christopher Rufo, a right-wing activist who emerged in 2021 as a standard-bearer in the educational culture wars. (Rufo was recently one of six DeSantis appointees charged with turning New College, a small liberal arts school, into a beacon of conservatism.)

In April, with Rufo at his side, DeSantis signed the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, which makes it almost impossible for educators to teach about racial or gender discrimination. He and Republican lawmakers — who control the state Legislature — have also mandated that civics education in the state focus on patriotism. Among the institutions allowed to review the civics guidelines was Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian institution. (Hillsdale is the model for the governor’s and Rufo’s vision for New College.)

Florida has 2.9 million public school students. Any curricular decisions made there are potentially consequential for educators and students in other states, especially as Republican governors seek to emulate the moves that have made DeSantis popular with the party’s base. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Arkansas’s new and first female governor, recently attracted a top Florida education official to run her state’s schools.

Parent Andria Derio protesting against the teaching of CRT
Parent Andria Derio of Yorba Linda, Calif., is opposed to the teaching of critical race theory in school, and wears a sign at a school board meeting stating she will remove her children from the district if a resolution banning CRT does not pass. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Administered by the College Board, Advancement Placement courses allow high school students to earn college credit by doing college-level work. Conceived in the 1950s at Kenyon College, the AP program now has about 40 courses, from statistics to Chinese. More than 1.1 million high school students have taken at least one AP course annually in recent years.

The African American history AP course was introduced in August as a pilot project. Conservatives immediately expressed concern that it would be used to inculcate students with critical race theory, a concept that is as divisive and nebulous as wokeness — and seems also to connote, in the broadest sense, a concern for examining the legacy and persistence of racial injustices.

“I think people need to understand that critical race theory is not an element of this course,” a teacher involved in the pilot told the New York Times, pointing out that the contentious 1619 Project — a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine series that sought to reframe the American experience around slavery and racism but also faced some criticism from historians — was not part of the curriculum.

“There might be elements that cross over,” the teacher explained. “But this course is a comprehensive, mainstream course about the African American experience.”

Schoolchildren holding signs against the concept of critical race theory
Schoolchildren holding signs against the concept of critical race theory, Hialeah Gardens, Fla., April 22, 2022. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

According to a copy of the proposed syllabus published by a Florida news outlet, the course is a straightforward history lesson that covers the rise of African kingdoms, the advent of the transatlantic slave trade, the experience of enslavement in the American South, abolition and emancipation, the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights movement and the challenges faced by African Americans today.

Many of the suggested texts are by canonical authors like the pioneering sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois and the writer James Baldwin, as well as Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father who owned slaves. But reference to Kimberlé Crenshaw, who pioneered the concept of critical race theory, and other contemporary thinkers, appeared to provide conservatives like DeSantis with all the evidence they needed to dismiss the course outright as nothing more than an exercise in activism.

A factsheet compiled by the state Education Department and sent to Yahoo News also raises concerns with topics like Intersectionality and Activism, Black Queer Studies and the Reparations Movement, as well as with specific authors such as Angela Davis, bell hooks and Robin D.G. Kelley.

Florida educators raised concerns with AP African-American history course
Some Florida educators have raised concerns about the Advanced Placement African American history course.

Last week, Florida’s education department notified the College Board that it would be prohibiting the teaching of the new course because “the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law.”

After the letter was made public on Wednesday it was immediately criticized by many educators. But conservatives who fear that mainstream American culture has been given over to progressive rhetoric and ideology cheered DeSantis, as they consistently have during his battles with Democratic politicians and corporations like Disney that have embraced progressivism.

The White House is aware of DeSantis’s rising clout and barely concealed presidential ambitions, and thus sees little downside in picking a fight with a figure many Democrats have come to regard as perhaps a bigger political threat than Donald Trump. (The former president has already announced that he will seek the presidency next year, and he too has come to view DeSantis as a threat.)

Jean-Pierre implied on Friday that the decision on African American history was motivated by racial animus. “And let’s not forget, they didn’t block AP European History, they didn’t block our music history, they didn't block our art history — but the state chooses to block a course that is meant for high-achieving students to learn about their history of arts and culture.”

In his statement, Griffin said Jean-Pierre was “demonstrably incorrect.”

Responding to what quickly became a national controversy, the state Education Department told the Daily Beast that it was open to revisiting the issue. “If the course comes into compliance and incorporates historically accurate content, the department will reopen the discussion,” a spokeswoman said.