Documents detail Florida’s objections to African American Studies course
State officials at times pushed to include perspectives from “the other side” but failed to elaborate whose perspective they wanted added.
Tampa Bay Times | By Ana Ceballos and Alyssa Johnson | August 29, 2023
TALLAHASSEE — When Florida rejected a new Advanced Placement course on African American Studies, state officials said they objected to the study of several concepts — like reparations, the Black Lives Matter movement and “queer theory.”
But the state did not say that, in many instances, its reviewers also made objections in the state’s attempt to sanitize slavery and the plight of African Americans throughout history, according to a Times/Herald review of internal state comments.
For example, a lesson in the Advanced Placement course focused on how Europeans benefited from trading enslaved people and the materials enslaved laborers produced. The state objected to the content, saying the instructional approach “may lead to a viewpoint of an ‘oppressor vs. oppressed’ based solely on race or ethnicity.”
In another lesson about the beginnings of slavery, the course delved into how tens of thousands of enslaved Africans had been “removed from the continent to work on Portuguese-colonized Atlantic islands and in Europe” and how those “plantations became a model for a slave-based economy in the Americas.”
In response, the state raised concerns that the unit “may not address the internal slave trade/system within Africa” and that it “may only present one side of this issue and may not offer any opposing viewpoints or other perspectives on the subject.”
“There is no other perspective on slavery other than it was brutal,” said Mary Pattillo, a sociology professor and the department chairperson of Black Studies at Northwestern University. Pattillo is one of several scholars the Times/Herald interviewed during its review of the state’s comments about the AP African American Studies curriculum.
“It was exploitative, it dehumanized Black people, it expropriated their labor and wealth for generations to come. There is no other side to that in African American studies. If there’s another side, it may be in some other field. I don’t know what field that is because I would argue there is no other side to that in higher education,” Pattillo said.
Alexander Weheliye, African American studies professor at Brown University, said the evaluators’ comments on the units about slavery were a “complete distortion” and “whitewashing” of what happened historically.
“It’s really trying to go back to an earlier historical moment, where slavery was mainly depicted by white historians through a white perspective. So to say that the enslaved and the sister African nations and kingdoms and white colonizers and enslavers were the same really misrecognizes the fundamentals of the situation,” Weheliye said.
The objections are an example of how Florida education officials are enforcing broad state laws and rules that restrict how schools can teach about racism and other aspects of history — and how the College Board’s pilot African American Studies course became a casualty of those policies.
DeSantis’ efforts to transform education in Florida
The commentary is also an example of how Gov. Ron DeSantis has transformed the state’s education system in his quest to end what he calls “wokeism” and “liberal indoctrination” in schools — a fight that began in the aftermath of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement that followed the high-profile murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota.
“It’s not really about the course, right? It’s kind of about putting down Black struggles for equality and freedom that have been going on for centuries at this point in time and making them into something that they are not through this kind of distorted rightist lens,” Weheliye said.
When asked about the findings of the previously unreported internal reviews, the Florida Department of Education said the course was rejected after state officials “found that several parts of the course were unsuitable for Florida students.”
Cailey Myers, a spokesperson for the agency, cited the work of many Black writers and scholars associated with the academic concepts of critical race theory, queerness and intersectionality — a term that she said “ranks people based on their race, wealth, gender and sexual orientation.” The term, however, refers to the way different social categorizations can interact with discrimination.
Brandi Waters, the executive director of the AP African American Studies course, said it is hard to understand the Florida Department of Education’s critiques on the content because state officials have not directly shared their internal reviews with the College Board. The state and the College Board, however, were in communication about the course for several months before it was rejected.
Waters maintains the coursework submitted to the state was the most holistic introduction to African American Studies.
“This course really gives students an opportunity to go deep,” Waters said. “It gives them the skill set to look at a wider range of primary sources that capture African American lives and experiences, and also refutes the notion that there’s one side against another, but really that there are multiple sides and we should look very deeply into all aspects of any historical process.”
A deeper look at Florida’s objections
The course materials provided by the College Board were reviewed by the Florida Department of Education’s Bureau of Standards and Instructional Support, and the decision to reject the course was made by “FDOE senior leadership,” records show.
John Duebel, the director of the state agency’s social studies department, and Kevin Hoeft, a former state agency official who now works at the New College of Florida in Sarasota, were identified as the two evaluators in the review. Hoeft is listed as an “expert consultant” to the Civics Alliance, a national conservative group that aims to focus social studies instruction in the Western canon and eliminate “woke” standards. His wife is a member of the conservative group Moms for Liberty.
Duebel declined to comment on the story and referred questions to the Department of Education, which did not respond. Hoeft did not respond to a request seeking comment. While the documents say that Duebel and Hoeft led the state reviews, much of the comments included in the state review are not attributed, making it hard to tell who said what.
The documents reviewed were provided to the Times/Herald by American Oversight, a left-leaning research organization that sued the state Department of Education for the records.
“We sued the Florida Department of Education to shed light on the DeSantis administration’s efforts to whitewash American history and turn classrooms into political battlegrounds,” American Oversight Deputy Executive Director Chioma Chukwu said in a statement. “The records obtained by American Oversight from Florida’s internal review of the AP African American Studies course expose the dangers of Gov. DeSantis’ sweeping changes to public education in Florida, including preventing students from learning history free from partisan spin.”
The documents offer more detail into the state’s reasoning for rejecting the pilot course from being offered to high school students in Florida — and how topics related to racism, identity and gender were continually flagged out of concern that lessons were biased, misleading or “inappropriate” for students.
And, in cases where state officials did not find a violation of a state law or rule, concerns were often raised about how educators would teach the content, underscoring the growing distrust between state officials and educators as disputes over social issues engulf local school politics.
For example, the state worried that educators teaching about how the 1960s Black is Beautiful movement helped lay a foundation for multicultural and ethnic studies movements could “possibly teach that rejecting cultural assimilation, and promoting multiculturalism and ethnic studies are current worthy objectives for African Americans today.”
“This type of instruction tends to divide Americans rather than unify Americans around the universal principles in the Declaration of Independence,” the state officials wrote about a lesson in the course.
Records also show how some of the comments made by the state evaluators contained contradictions, such as advocating for primary sources and then later writing that certain primary sources contained “factual misrepresentations.” Many comments from the state pushed for the material to include perspectives from “the other side” but failed to elaborate whose perspective they wanted to be added.
One of the lessons in the course, for example, set out to teach students how slavery set back Black people’s ability to build wealth.
“Enslaved African Americans had no wages to pass down to descendants, no legal right to accumulate property, and individual exceptions depended on their enslavers’ whims,” the College Board’s lesson plan said.
When reviewing the content, however, state reviewers said the lesson plan might violate state laws and rules because it “supposes that no slaves or their descendants accumulated any wealth.”
“This is not true and may be promoting the critical race theory idea of reparations,” state officials wrote in documents reviewed by the Times/Herald. “This topic presents one side of this issue and does not offer any opposing viewpoints or other perspectives on the subject.”
While there were scattered instances where enslaved people were given the chance to earn money to pay for their freedom, the wealth they accumulated still did not belong to them, said Paul Finkelman, the editor-in-chief of Oxford University Press’ “Encyclopedia of African American History 1619-1895.”
“Under the law of every slave state, including Florida, no slave could own anything. That is, slaves did not own the clothes on their back. They did not own the shoes on their feet,” said Finkelman. “So for the Florida Education Department to question whether slaves accumulated property is to not understand that slaves owned no property. In fact, they were property belonging to slave owners.”
Even in cases where slaves were allowed to make money, Finkelman argued, it would be a stretch to say they were able to accumulate wealth.
“Suppose you work very hard, raising chickens on your own and you make money over 20 years and you give all that money to the person who has owned you and that person says fine, you’re free. Does that mean you’ve accumulated wealth? Does that mean you’ve benefited from the system of slavery? You now have nothing, except your own freedom,” Finkelman said. “And by the way, the slave owner may say, but of course, your wife and children still belong to me.”
Black middle class
Evaluators also objected to a lesson plan that taught how Black Americans, even after slavery, continue to experience wealth disparities due to ongoing discrimination.
The coursework included the following statement: “Despite the growth of the Black middle class, substantial disparities in wealth along racial lines remain. Discrimination and racial disparities in housing and employment stemming from the early 20th century limited Black communities’ accumulation of generational wealth in the second half of the 20th century.”
State reviewers, however, said the unit could potentially violate state rules because it failed to offer other reasons outside of systemic racism and discrimination for the wealth disparity between Black Americans and other racial groups.
“The only required resource in this topic cites ‘systemic racism,’ ‘discrimination,’ ‘systemic barriers,’ ‘structural barriers,’ and ‘structural racism’ as a primary or significant causative factor explaining this disparity of wealth,” wrote one evaluator. “This topic appears to be one-sided as non-critical perspectives or competing opinions are cited to explain this wealth disparity.”
Pattillo said that while many of the comments made by the state in the review claimed that they wanted to see more balance of perspectives in the course materials, she felt state officials largely tried to minimize the topics of discrimination.
“I don’t think that’s what the Florida evaluators or legislators are after,” said Pattillo. “They’re after, if not a complete silencing of, then definitely a reduction in attention to the violence and discrimination and exclusion that Black people have experienced in this country.”
When it came to teaching students about the movement to end slavery, the College Board highlighted some of the prominent activists who led that abolitionist movement and the ways the government tried to stop those who resisted slavery.
“Due to the high number of African Americans who fled enslavement, Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, authorizing local governments to legally kidnap and return escaped refugees to their enslavers,” the lesson plan stated.
A state evaluator, however, argued this unit about the abolitionist movement could violate state rules because it was not “factually inclusive or balanced.” The evaluator also made the comment that it would be more “accurate” to say the word “owners” rather than enslavers and that white men like Benjamin Franklin and John Jay should be cited as original activists for the abolition movement.
Primary sources were scrutinized
When the College Board addressed the resistance to slavery, it wanted to teach students how to “describe the features of 19th-century radical resistance strategies promoted by Black activists to demand change.” In that unit, the state objected to two primary sources: “The Appeal” by David Walker and “An Address to the Slaves of the United States” by Henry Highland Garnet.
State reviewers said that “The Appeal” included “content prohibited under Florida law,” but does not offer more details; and that “An Address to the Slaves of the United States” contains “factual mis-representations” and potential violations of state rules.
“They complain that this primary source is not historically accurate. Well, of course it’s not historically accurate because it’s a political speech. It is not a piece of history, but it’s a perfectly historically accurate primary source to understand the anger of a Black abolitionist,” Finkelman said.
However, earlier in the review, the evaluators applauded the College Board for stating that “anchoring the AP course in primary sources fosters an evidence-based learning environment” and that the course will be focused on the works and documents of African American studies rather than “extraneous political opinions or perspectives.”
“This is exactly how all courses are to be taught in the state of Florida and we commend (the) College Board on this position,” wrote the state reviewer.
Scholars’ political leanings questioned
In one review, one of the state evaluators questioned the balance of the content because of the individuals the College Board picked to develop the coursework.
The committee members listed by the College Board ranged from professors at Ivy League schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, along with professors at other private and public universities across the country. The committee members also included some high school teachers.
But one of the evaluators had a gripe: they claimed that there were no conservative Black scholars. This was a concern because, as the state evaluator put it, there may not be an “adequate level of intellectual balance.”
“Conservative and traditional liberal members may need to be added to the committees to bring balance and ensure compliance with Florida statutes, rules, and policies,” the state evaluator wrote.
Waters said that the College Board is focused on having scholars on their committees who are the leaders in the field of African American studies and that their political background isn’t something they take into consideration.
“In terms of the scholars, we never really asked them ‘what is your political background?’” Waters said. “I don’t assume that is a characteristic that remains static in a person’s life over time.”
“What we do is look for scholars who represent the expertise needed for the course. So who is leading the field in how we understand the origins of the African diaspora? Who is leading the field in cutting-edge research on unearthing new perspectives of the Civil Rights Movement? We look for their expertise and also the different backgrounds that they represent,” she added.
How did we get to this point?
While Florida law requires the study of African American history, the state reviews of the AP course show how the DeSantis administration and Republican policymakers are implementing changes to how schools can teach about race, slavery and other aspects of Black history.
In 2021, Florida barred lessons that deal with critical race theory, a 1980s legal concept that holds that racial disparities are systemic in the United States and not just a collection of individual prejudices. Critical race theory was not being taught in Florida schools. The state also barred lessons about “The 1619 Project,” a New York Times project that reexamines U.S. history by placing the consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans at the center.
A year later, the Republican-led Legislature approved a new law, known as the Individual Freedom Act or the Stop Woke act, which prohibited instruction that could prompt students to feel discomfort about a historical event because of their race, ethnicity, sex or national origin.
To DeSantis, the restrictions are a necessary effort to protect students from what he sees as a cultural threat that, as he puts it, teaches “kids to hate this country.” But the policies have been widely criticized by Democrats, educators, historians and even a few Republican lawmakers who see the laws as an attempt to distort historic events.
State officials’ interpretation of these policies collided with many of the learning objectives outlined in the AP courses. This collision, some scholars say, is emblematic of the chilling effect the state’s vague laws can foster in academia.
“I think this is the point that many people have been saying,” Pattillo said. “That the misguided blanket use of this term ‘critical race theory,’ and in the absence of some definition of what that means or what they think it means, makes any teaching of racism questionable per that vagueness.”
Based on the state reviews the Times/Herald provided to him, Finkelman said it appeared the state was “hunting for bias.”
“And if you hunt long enough, you can find bias anywhere,” Finkelman said, noting that “anyone can find faults, and even small mistakes with any scholarly enterprise.”
To do the job right, Finkelman said, the state should ensure the course is reviewed by historians, with expertise in the specific subject area — not political scientists or state bureaucrats. He questioned whether the state prioritized reviewers’ credentials after seeing the state’s comments on the topics of slavery, or subjects that took into account the issue of racism and identity.
Based on Finkelman’s review of the content, he said, the state reviewers were more interested in correcting content based on their reading of the material over “scholarly accuracy.”
Since Florida rejected the pilot course in January, students in other parts of the country have been taking part in the pilot program. Education officials in only one other state — Arkansas — are disputing whether to make the AP course eligible for credit. The Arkansas Department of Education — led by Florida’s former K-12 Chancellor Jacob Oliva — recently removed the class from its course code listing.
In November, the College Board plans to submit the final version of the course’s curriculum for approval. But with Florida’s laws still in place, the fate of the course remains in limbo — and the outcome could potentially make Florida students in public high schools less likely to have access to the course. If approved, parents and students can choose to enroll in the course.
College Board officials are aware of this possibility, but remain hopeful.
“We certainly hope that Florida students will have the opportunity to take this course,” said Holly Stepp, a spokesperson with the College Board.
Myers, the Florida Department of Education spokesperson, said the College Board is welcome to resubmit the course for review in November.
But, Myers said, “at this point, it is inappropriate to comment on what the future could hold – it is just speculation.”