Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Other Scholars Respond as Ron DeSantis Whitewashs African American Studies

In a powerful NY Times column, the director of the Harvard University Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. places Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at the center the resurgent welling up of racism in America.

Dr. Gates explains that DeSantis’s intervention in the adoption of a College Board AP Curriculum in African American Studies, “falls squarely in line with a long tradition of bitter, politically suspect battles over the interpretation of three seminal periods in the history of American racial relations:  the Civil War;  the 12 years following the war, known as Reconstruction;  and Reconstruction’s brutal rollback, characterized by its adherents as the former Confederacy’s ‘Redemption,’ which saw the imposition of Jim Crow segregation, the reimposition of white supremacy and their justification through a masterfully executed propaganda effort.”

DeSantis’s attempts to eliminate “diversity, equity, and inclusion” from Florida’s colleges and universities and his efforts to intimidate the College Board to revise its proposed Advanced Placement class in African American Studies according to the racist demands made by himself and his staff are blatant examples of DeSantis’s appeal to white supremacy as a political strategy.

It is telling that after negotiations with DeSantis’s staff, the College Board removed the word “systemic” as a descriptor for racism in America. The Washington Post’s Nick Anderson explains what happened to the word “systemic” as the College Board developed its new curriculum for an AP African American Studies class: “The College Board, which oversees the AP program denies that it diluted the African American studies course in response to complaints from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) or his allies. But a senior College Board official now acknowledges the organization was mindful of how ‘systemic’ and certain other words in the modern lexicon of race in America would receive intense scrutiny in some places. ‘All of those terms were going to be challenging,’ said Jason Manoharan, vice president for AP program development.”

To say that racism is systemic is a way to point out that racism is more serious and more pervasively detrimental than mere personal prejudice. For example, in The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein documents a history of systemic housing discrimination—insurance redlining and the denial of FHA loans, for example—policies which have historically reduced housing opportunity for African American families. And constitutional scholar and education historian Derek Black points out that school funding is systemically unequal: “Achievement, segregation, and funding data all indicate that poor and minority students are receiving vastly unequal educational opportunities. For instance, predominantly minority schools receive about $2,000 less per student than predominantly white schools.”

Anderson reports: “The February 2022 version (of the College Board’s proposed curriculum) declared that students should learn how African American communities combat effects of ‘systemic marginalization.’ An April update paired ‘systemic’ with discrimination, oppression, inequality, disempowerment and racism. A December version said it was essential to know links between Black Panther activism and ‘systemic inequality that disproportionately affected African Americans.’ Then the word vanished. ‘Systemic,’ a crucial term for many scholars and civil rights advocates, appears nowhere in the official version released Feb. 1. This late deletion and others reflect the extraordinary political friction that often shadows efforts in the nation’s schools to teach about history, culture, and race.”

In his column last week, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. compares Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s efforts to whitewash history to the efforts of Mildred Lewis Rutherford, “a descendant of a long line of slave owners.” Rutherford published a pamphlet in 1920, “A Measuring Rod to Test Textbooks, and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges, and Libraries,” to help educators ban any books “which do not accord full justice to the South.” She wanted students to learn that slavery itself “was an education that taught the negro self-control, obedience, and perseverance.”

Dr. Gates concludes: “Is it fair to see Governor DeSantis’s attempts to police the contents of the College Board’s AP curriculum in African American Studies in classrooms in Florida solely as little more than a contemporary version of Mildred Rutherford’s Lost Cause textbook campaign? No. But the governor would do well to consider the company that he is keeping… While most certainly not embracing her cause, Mr. DeSantis is complicitous in perpetuating her agenda.”

Dr. Gates is not the only scholar who has expressed outrage and concern about Governor DeSantis’s apparent determination to omit part of our history from his state’s public schools. Last week, in a letter to David Coleman, the CEO of the College Board, more than 1000 faculty “who teach, write, research and lead in the areas of African American and Black Studies” protested the changes made during this year to the new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies.  Here is some of what these academics wrote:

“The College Board has now acknowledged that the Florida Department of Education… sought to influence the course not because of scholarly concerns or pedagogical standards but because that body was acting as a ‘political apparatus.’ The College Board’s admission that it removed the mention of concepts like ‘systemic marginalization’ and ‘intersectionality’ because they had become ‘politicized’ only serves to reward that same political apparatus… African American Studies is the study of the persistence of anti-Blackness and the connections between historical and contemporary efforts to resist structural racism… Finally, the censorship of foundational content was not limited to course concepts, themes and scholars alone. Course goals and learning outcomes were also revised to suggest that the course was not intended for students to assess ‘real world problems,’ ‘systemic marginalization,’ or to evaluate the ‘past, present, and future implications’ of major social movements…”