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Op-Ed: Watering down AP African American studies preserves the myth that racism exists solely in the past

A teen paints a mural of a Black woman's profile on a wall.
High school student Lucia Sano paints a mural of a Black woman’s profile on a Highland Park storefront in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Revisions to the AP African American studies course has changed the topic of Black Lives Matter from required to optional.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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A new Advanced Placement African American studies course, piloted across 60 schools during the current school year, has been celebrated by scholars of race and ethnicity and criticized by conservative politicians and commentators. When the official curriculum was released this week, revisions made by the course designers suggest that they sought to satisfy both its supporters and critics.

But by attempting to appease everyone, the final curriculum will hurt African American students.

The middle ground is often a perilous place for marginalized communities. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. long ago warned us of the dangers of moderation.

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“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

The College Board, the purveyor of AP curriculum responsible for the new African American studies course, seems to be the “white moderate” here that King warned us about.

On the first day of Black History Month, the College Board is releasing details of its first Advanced Placement class on African American studies for high school students.

Feb. 1, 2023

Surely, the College Board is trying to thread a political needle. On one side are conservative politicians such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who recently banned a pilot version of the course in the state’s schools. On the other are progressive scholars of education like me who have long asserted that schools need to be spaces that appreciate Black cultures and engage students in thoughtful conversations about racism and oppression.

The initial pilot version of this course included a robust investigation of African and African American history followed by required conversations about racism and antiracist movements today.

In the latest version of the curriculum the history mostly remains, but political discussions of present-day racism and antiracist resistance have either been made optional or abandoned entirely. The Black Lives Matter movement and reparations for enslavement, both required topics in the pilot version of the course, are now optional topics for a research project in the revised curriculum. The topics of prison abolition and intersectionality have been omitted entirely.

Perhaps the College Board views these revisions as a successful threading of that political needle. Many liberal educators will likely celebrate a new AP course that centers Black people. Most conservatives will probably approve of the course now that discussions of current progressive ideas have been excluded.

Ultimately, however, the course will be a disservice to Black students and their peers. By focusing almost entirely on history while marketing the course as a comprehensive study of the African American experience, it perpetuates the myth that anti-Black racism exists solely in the past. This pernicious framing is used by conservative ideologies that cast present-day Black inequality as the fault of Black inadequacy, and to buttress theories of white supremacy.

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If AP students — those most likely to take on leadership roles in politics and commerce — understand racism as a historical artifact rather than a current reality, movements for racial justice will inevitably stall.

As an education researcher studying race and college readiness, I have studied how AP students understand race and racism. Students who take existing courses such as AP U.S. history — which delves deeply into the past injustices against Black Americans — or AP language and composition — which invites the study of arguments made by historical Black thinkers — can often offer sophisticated analyses of racism against Black people in the American past.

Yet when asked about racism in America now, these same students have much less to say. When I ask them to explain, for example, why their AP classes are largely devoid of Black students, nearly all of them say they have never really thought about it. “It’s just the norm,” one said.

Frankly, the AP program as a whole has failed to prepare students to address racism in its current manifestation. Racism is a fundamental and persistent challenge of U.S. society. Leaving students ill-prepared to discuss it presents a threat to our democracy.

New AP courses are piloted so that teachers can provide insight to ensure that courses are coherent and meet the needs of high school students. While some parts of the piloted version of the African American studies course may have needed revision, by updating it so it focuses almost entirely on the past, the course now ignores what our students need today.

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Whether the revisions were a cave to conservatives or to streamline the curriculum based on educator feedback, by eliminating discussions of movements to resist racism the College Board has created a watered-down course that will leave students far less able to understand how the American experience is rooted in racial inequalities, now and in the past.

For a discipline like African American studies, founded in part to resist anti-Black racism in the U.S., the ignoring or silencing of antiracist voices in the curriculum is profoundly disappointing.

While the recent decisions of the College Board to revise the curriculum may ensure the viability of the AP African American studies course across the country, they also suggest little commitment to educating young people about present-day racism in America. We must remember King’s assessment of moderation and educate our students with more than the status quo to move democracy forward.

Suneal Kolluri is an assistant professor in the school of education at UC Riverside.

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