Records obtained by American Oversight and reported on by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald shed new light on the Florida Department of Education’s review of the AP African American Studies course, which the state rejected earlier this year for teaching what it deemed a “political agenda.”
The records, released in response to American Oversight’s lawsuit, contain internal comments from the department’s review — including objections to lessons about slavery or racial disparities that reviewers claimed were “one-sided” or lacking in “opposing viewpoints.” The comments are glaring examples of how the state has sought to minimize and whitewash U.S. history as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ attacks on the supposed threat of “wokeism.”
In recent years, Florida under DeSantis has been a hotbed of far-right education measures, from the rejection of math and social studies textbooks to the banning of instruction of critical race theory or discussions of gender identity. In 2022, DeSantis signed the “Stop WOKE Act,” which restricted classroom discussion of historical and systemic racism, and in January of this year the state’s education department announced the rejection of the pilot AP African American Studies course.
The reviewers’ comments on lessons about slavery reflect an attempt to minimize the horrors and long-term effects, including by calling for the inclusion of more than “one side of this issue.” “There is no other perspective on slavery other than it was brutal,” Mary Pattillo, the chair of the Black Studies department at Northwestern University, told the Times/Herald. “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.” Some examples of reviewers’ comments include:
- Criticism that a unit on the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade “may not address the internal slave trade/system within Africa, which led to the exportation of slaves to the Americas” and that the course makes “no mention here of any role, if any, played by continental Africans” in the system. The reviewer wrote that the “topic presents only one side of this issue and does not offer any opposing viewpoints or other perspectives on the subject.”
- Regarding a discussion of how Europeans benefited from the slave trade, a reviewer noted that the topic “lacks insight to the global network of other countries or nations” and “may lead to a viewpoint of a ‘oppressor vs. oppressed’ based solely on race or identity.”
- Reviewers also said that a prompt to “Remember that slavery was the economic foundation of every country in the Americas, not just the United States” mirrored the “flawed history” of the New York Times and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “1619 Project,” the teaching of which was banned in the “Stop WOKE Act.”
In lesson plans about wealth disparities for Black Americans, reviewers downplayed the focus on systemic racism or other institutional barriers as being “one-sided.” Reviewers’ comments included:
- Reviewers criticized a lesson stating that slaves “had no wages to pass down to descendants, no legal right to accumulate property, and individual exceptions depended on their enslavers’ whims.” In response, a reviewer wrote that the quote “supposes that no slaves or their descendants accumulated any wealth,” adding, “This is not true and may be promoting the critical race theory idea of reparations.”
- The review states that a topic about housing discrimination in the postwar period lacks “critical perspective or balancing opinion … to indicate that many American Blacks may have been prospering and becoming successful in spite of these challenges.”
Evaluators also objected to other lessons about history, and sought to emphasize white Americans’ role in ending slavery.
- In response to a lesson about how the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 allowed “local governments to legally kidnap and return escaped refugees to their enslavers,” a reviewer proposed using the term “owners” instead of “enslavers,” as it was “more accurate to the written laws of the time.”
- A reviewer criticized the course’s characterization of abolitionism as a movement “led by Black activists and White supporters” for not being “factually inclusive and balanced.” The reviewer wrote, “Question: Were not the White ‘supporters’ the original activists? Benjamin Franklin and John Jay created the first abolitionist organizations in the country in the 1780s.”
- Regarding a topic on Black soldiers’ service during the Civil War, a reviewer wrote, “There is no mention that 10,000 Black men and over 600,000 White men died in the war that ended slavery.”
- A reviewer flagged a topic on the Black is Beautiful movement and its emphasis on not conforming to “Eurocentric” standards of beauty as possibly violating Florida standards “if taught from a critical race theory perspective.” The reviewer wrote, “A concern is whether the term ‘Eurocentric standards’ is being applied according to a ‘woke’ critical race theory perspective, which is critical of things like punctuality, hard work, free speech and equal treatment.”
In addition to concerns that the scholars selected to develop the course didn’t include “conservative and traditional liberal members,” evaluators also flagged topics that didn’t conform to right-wing ideas or that might violate Florida’s numerous education restrictions.
- A reviewer said that a lesson on Black Americans’ political party affiliation lacked “critical perspective or balancing opinion” and presented “the Democratic party and its representatives favorably.” The reviewer also said that “it appears that more Blacks are switching from the Democratic party to the Republican party than vice versa” — citing a November 2022 New York Post article as a source for the claim.
- Regarding a lesson that stated, “Gender played an important role in the griot [storyteller/historian] tradition,” a reviewer wrote, “Gender mentioned in this way may be a violation of Florida law.”
- Reviewers flagged that certain materials — including writing by W.E.B Du Bois, Michelle Alexander, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon, and others — were “concerning,” some of which the reviewer noted would not be permitted under state law.
The records from the AP course review “expose the dangers of Gov. DeSantis’ sweeping changes to public education in Florida, including preventing students from learning history free from partisan spin,” American Oversight Deputy Executive Director Chioma Chukwu told the Times/Herald.
“From Department of Education officials’ efforts to alter African American history lessons to promote the benevolent roles of white Americans to downplaying the multigenerational consequences of racial slavery, these records provide more evidence of how DeSantis’ policies threaten the health of an informed democracy by distorting facts and the realities of this nation’s struggles with race relations,” Chukwu said.
Read more about American Oversight’s investigations into right-wing attacks on education here.