Let us be clear, the College Board’s decision to strip down its AP African American Studies curriculum is yet another example of institutional control over what is worth learning, and importantly, whom that learning should benefit.
With a history predicated on the foundations of eugenics and anti-Blackness, the College Board has yet to create a curriculum that centers Black scholars who write and teach about Black humanity and who envision and inspire Black futures.
We are writing from the perspective of two women and educators of color in higher education who identify as Asian American and Black and whose works interrogate systemic racism in schools and communities. We recognize that the anti-critical race theory movement and now, the board’s revised curriculum, were prompted by white conservative politicians and activists who rallied parents against any critiques of white supremacy.
White parents who were already distrustful of public education and concerned with the decline of white dominance reflected through instruction were told that “critical race” meant all students were taught to hate white people and white culture. Politicians and activists intentionally incited these parents to demand protection for their white children against what those activists characterized as harmful curricula. The board’s decision was motivated by the protection of masked white innocence and the preservation of its own political, and thus economic, interests.
To be certain, the College Board is a business, regardless of its nonprofit status. Its decision to dilute the AP African American Studies curriculum was not as much about scholarly integrity as it was about preserving its own connections to politically powerful organizations and funding sources as a gatekeeping educational institution. And in that role, the College Board’s interests depend on its ability to sell Black people’s histories and experiences for white consumption.
Following white parents’ and other white stakeholders’ outcries, the College Board eliminated all interrogations of structural racism from the course curriculum, including critical race theoretical perspectives, Black feminism and Black queer theory as well as pivotal historical events such as the Black Lives Matter movement. The term “white supremacists” is used to identify overtly racist white individuals, but “white supremacy” isn’t mentioned in the context of exposing systems of racism and oppression. Moreover, there is no critique of racial capitalism and how the U.S. economic system has been built on the economic exploitation and disenfranchisement of Black people.
Although former President Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are mentioned in the curriculum, they are done so at the cost of interrogating the racial realities of Black people who are poor and/or working class. The focus on Black exceptionalism also communicates to Black children that success is contingent on hard work alone and not affected by racism. According to the curriculum, racism is in the past, and it is discussed in the past tense. In the “Black Power and Black Pride” unit, where racism is last mentioned, for instance, it is noted that “Africans and African Americans endured similar struggles against anti-Black racism and oppression.” Meanwhile, white abolitionists and civil rights activists, such as some freedom riders, are hailed in the curriculum as the heroes of racial justice.
A curriculum for African American studies typically comprises both historical and theoretical developments in the field. This includes how leading Black scholars, such as Derrick Bell, bell hooks and Audre Lorde have contributed to understandings of Black life in the U.S. But in the new AP African American Studies course, these scholars’ works were eliminated from the curriculum; the Board created, instead, a one-sided curriculum that redeemed white people from their atrocities against Black people.
Education, in its most optimistic and ideal sense, engenders free thinking and liberation. We know that teaching multiple perspectives could invite narrative-changing dialogues and foster empathy in a world of differing, and often conflicting, viewpoints and lived realities. Let us, thus, create opportunities for young people to learn African American studies from the perspectives of Black scholars and everyday knowledge-makers. Let us expect and demand a critical curriculum that celebrates Black joy and livingness, one that also exposes the truths about systems of white supremacy and anti-Blackness in our society. Let us expect and demand a curriculum that cultivates critical consciousness; that gives young people language, theories and histories to affirm Black lives; that emboldens them to dream big, fly high, and demand that we, as a nation, do better. That is the curriculum that our young people deserve — that is the curriculum that our schools need.
Rossina Zamora Liu is an assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership, at the College of Education.
Tara Brown is an associate professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership, at the College of Education.