AP African American Studies, CRT, and Redressing Institutional Racism

AP African American Studies Panel at the National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington, February 2, 2023 (Wikimedia Commons)

It is an undeniable fact that institutional racism plagues America. On February 7, 2023, at the State of the Union address, President Biden highlighted that “ the story of America is the story of progress and resilience.” How accurate was this statement when we live in a nation where some police officers still abuse Black people under the guise of “protecting and serving”? How does the story of American progress and resilience apply to African Americans who are still being killed by law enforcement? When will all African Americans be able to experience the notion of  “living in the land of the free”?

It is worthwhile considering a famous quote by Malcolm X, “It is the process of mis-education that inhibits the full potential of a nation.” Therefore, we must strive to avoid the continuation of  ‘mis-education’ — which includes incorrect and missed educational opportunities— if we are to see our nation progress. It is for these reasons that courses such as African American Studies are essential for the progress and resilience of our nation.

In recent months, there has been political discussions of AP African American Studies, particularly by Governors of conservative states. This has brought into question how and why AP African American Studies should be taught. Further to Brown v. Board of Education, courts generally considered this ruling as providing “equal educational opportunities.” However, if AP African American Studies courses are banned and restricted for being “dangerous,” our students are clearly not being granted equal access to learn all social, political, and historical realities which are a part of African American Studies and, therefore, a part of the American experience. Therefore, this becomes more than a matter of diversifying the curriculum to accommodate African American perspectives; it becomes a social justice issue which is in need of redress.

As Carter G. Woodson highlighted, “The experience of college instructors shows that racial attitudes of the youth are not easily changed after [youths]  reach adolescence” (1933, p.47). Therefore, although it could be argued that it would be beneficial if all students were introduced to African American Studies as part of American Studies courses prior to college, our nation is not at this juncture. As it currently stands, AP African American Studies is provided to some students nearing college age, who are given the opportunity to explore rich insights that can be gained from the exploration of AP African American Studies. This program considers political, sociological, historical,  gendered, and justice experiences related to African Americans. As the legal implications of the social injustices faced by African Americans within society remains far from settled, such courses have the propensity to highlight the embeddedness of racism in American society which has its foundations in slavery. As a result, it is essential that all students are able to gain these important insights.

Early in February 2023, in the wake of Ron De Santis’ threats to ban AP African American Studies, the College Board published a revised curriculum for its first-ever Advanced Placement course in AP African American Studies. The revisions removed from the curriculum certain authors’ whose scholarship was deemed to be ‘outside’ of what is necessary to obtain foundational knowledge in African American Studies. These authors include Kimberlé CrenshawTa-Nehisi Coatesbell hooks, and Angela Davis, among others who were known for writing about Critical Race Theory, intersectionality, and advocating for social justice for African Americans. Along with the removal of certain academic activists, material regarding the Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQIA movement were also redacted. This therefore restricts students from learning about the experiences and perspectives of all sectors of the African American community as part of a standard curriculum. Surely, gaining an education which makes students consider all perspectives, experiences and genders as well as ask questions, is a first and crucial step towards ensuring that all sectors of our society are not overlooked.

Contrary to this positive objective, Governors DeSantis of Florida and Huckabee-Sanders of Arkansas, have found value in problematizing AP African American Studies and Critical Race Theory, conflating the two as being the same for what appears to be their own political ambition. African American Studies highlights various historical, political and social movements which have derived from Black populations’ experiences in America. Therefore, it provides students with a valuable insight into the experience of African American Studies generally. Rather than acknowledging that like all other minority groups, African American Studies is an essential part of American history for all students to learn in their AP classes. However, DeSantis conflated AP African American Studies with  “danger” and Sarah Huckabee-Sanders used her platform to vilify Critical Race Theory.

Critical Race Theory (CRT), “is an intellectual movement that is both particular to our postmodern (and conservative) times and part of a long tradition of human resistance and liberation” (West, 1995, xi). It first emerged in the 1980’s among legal scholars and it was designed to provide a theoretical approach to analyze the law and institutional inequalities which were part of a broader conversation into racial disparities.  It is a theory which provides an opportunity for the interrogation of contemporary American law, which has overlooked the racist ideology which is deeply ingrained in various aspects of American life. Due to the advanced level of academic considerations of intellectual movement, as expected, CRT is not taught in schools. However, Huckabee-Sanders’ clear  misrepresentation of CRT, what, where and when it is taught, clearly demonstrates how those who have chosen to politicize African American Studies, are merely highlighting their own prejudice and racial bias.

How can the next generation of Americans be educated to value the lives of all members of society if some Governors are willing to vilify African American Studies, muting elements of this discourse and in doing so, ignoring the experiences of various minority communities? It is not difficult to recognize that these are very relevant questions which must be considered carefully if we are to truly be able to redress many of the social injustices in our society.

Ironically, during Black History month—a month designed to highlight the value of learning more about Black experiences —Huckabee-Sanders claimed that Critical Race Theory was about “indoctrination and racism in our schools.” But, on the contrary, CRT is designed to expose the dangers of prejudice and racism which is deeply etched into the psyche of many who believe that their power gives them the right to suppress minority perspectives and the life stories of African Americans .

Interestingly, the juxtaposition of the words “critical” and “race,” have clearly touched a raw nerve for those who do not want to acknowledge that American law is steeped in racism. Therefore, African Americans have and should use their right to theorize, voice concerns and critique society about the legal disparities and treatment experienced due to the continuance of racism across institutions. To be clear, there is no dubious “agenda” behind Critical Race Theory. Rather, the aim of this theory —like all theories— is to provide a systematic approach to analyze society, from diverse perspectives, creating greater understandings of the racial dynamics of society.

James Baldwin had surmised, “The purpose of education[…] is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions.” It is this ability to make one’s own decision through education, which is what no student should be denied. Restricting AP African American Studies, denies students of this opportunity. Clearly W.E.B Dubois was correct when he stated, “Education must not simply teach work – it must teach life.” More than teaching ‘life,’ education should teach youngsters how to obtain a life success.

Huckabee-Sanders was correct about one thing, “Most Americans want to live their lives in freedom and peace.” However, if this freedom and peace mean ignoring the history of one group, namely Black people, over white historical concerns, it is clear that not all members of our society can benefit from this freedom. If AP African American Studies was not taught, it would be signaling to the next generation that the lives and concerns of Black people are of little consequence and therefore they “do not matter” when Black Lives do Matter.

It may be uncomfortable for beneficiaries of wrongs done in the past, because it reveals that their contemporary privilege is not merely the result of their sacrifice, but it is a direct result of the lives sacrificed and devalued through slavery, racial segregation, and Jim Crow. Suggesting to our students that they do not need to learn the truth about America’s history is clearly wrong. As Carter G. Woodson highlighted,

 “…no one can be thoroughly educated until he learns as much about the Negro as he knows about other people.”

All students need to learn about various minorities as a first and crucial step toward redressing institutional racism.

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Anique John

Anique John is an Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach, with a PhD in Justice Studies who specializes in Africana Studies and Human Rights. Her passion for social, institutional and immigrant justice for Black communities in the USA and UK, has been demonstrated through her research and scholarship. Focusing on the legal rights of Black and immigrant communities, Dr. John has been able to develop notable insights into societal challenges and institutional injustices experienced by minorities within Western spaces. She has used her insights to consider how marginalized Africana communities can realize what she has termed as “Life Success” (John, 2019). This theory highlights the relevance of situated knowledge to comprehend the academic and professional experiences of Africana populations, whilst providing ‘voice’ to minority individuals whose experiences of social injustice are often muted as they strive to obtain “life success.”

Comments on “AP African American Studies, CRT, and Redressing Institutional Racism

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    Very good article. Important analysis of a critical issue.

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      Thank you Dr. Claybrook

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    Thank you for this important essay.

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      Thank you Dr. Jones-Branch

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    Clear and bold statement of facts and analysis of the issues. Dr. John’s clarity is helpful to readers and well chosen in being published here. Looking forward to more from her.

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    Thank you ever so much Dr. Olaoye!

    There are so many issues related to this area that must be highlighted. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my insights here as a first and crucial step towards redressing social injustice.

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    I thoroughly enjoyed this essay which put a needed spotlight on the disingenuous and disgraceful actions by Desantis and Huckabee Sanders. Continued erudition along these lines is greatly anticipated

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      Thank you ever so much Mr. Benzan!

      I will continue to highlight the injustices that we are forced to witness and experience through various institutions and by notable figures, as a first and crucial step towards redressing injustice in society.

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