DeSantis May Have Been Right
In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida announced he would ban a draft curriculum proposed by the College Board for a new Advanced Placement course in African American studies, criticizing the educational merit of the course. This month the College Board released an official curriculum that revised the course by designating some of the writers and ideas in the draft curriculum as optional topics of study rather than core lessons.
The board claimed that the changes were responses to “the input of professors” and “longstanding A.P. principles.” I am unconvinced, to say the least, especially given the degree to which the counsel of these “professors” was mysteriously consonant with DeSantis’s.
I’d like to make clear that I disapprove of the vast majority of DeSantis’s culture warrior agenda, a ham-handed set of plans designed to stir up a G.O.P. base in thrall to unreflective figures such as Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. If DeSantis runs for president, he will not get my vote.
However, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and in terms of how we tell the story of Black America, the board did the right thing, whether because of DeSantis’s threat or for more high-minded reasons. The take that I saw in the course’s original draft depicted the history of Black America over the past several decades as an unbroken stream of left protest against a seemingly unchanging racist hegemon. There is certainly drama in the procession. The Black Panthers, the Black arts movement, Black studies departments, Black Lives Matter. Incarceration, reparations and Black struggle. Amiri Baraka, Molefi Kete Asante, Manning Marable (all notably left-leaning writers). But Black history has been ever so much more than protest and professional pessimism; note how hard it is to imagine any other group of people whose history is written with this flavor so dominant.
This is not education but advocacy. And in no sense does racism mean that the difference has no meaning. The key issue is the difference between opinions that are considered and debated and opinions that are mostly uncontested and perhaps considered uncontestable — essentially opinions that are treated as if they were facts.
Of course, it is possible to teach about opinions rather than facts. When that is properly done, the opinions are presented along with intelligent counterproposals. Given that Black conservatives —or skeptics of progressive narratives often processed as mainstream after the late 1960s — were nowhere to be found in the A.P. curriculum (except for Booker T. Washington, who has been dead for over a hundred years, and Zora Neale Hurston, whose conservatism is all too often downplayed), it is reasonable to assume that opinions from the left were going to be presented with little or no meaningful challenge.
Certain takes on race are thought of by an influential portion of progressive Americans — Black, white and otherwise — as incarnations of social justice. To them, our nation remains an incomplete project that will remain mired in denial until these ways of seeing race are universally accepted and determine the bulk of public policy. These issues include ones in the earlier version of the A.P. course, such as the idea that Black people may be owed reparations and that one of the most accurate lenses through which to view America is through the lens of intersectionality.
I imagine that to people of this mind-set, incorporating these views into an A.P. course on African American studies is seen as a natural step, via which we help get America woken by appealing to its brightest young minds. But for all the emotional resonance, the savory intonation of key buzzwords and phrases and the impassioned support of people with advanced degrees and prize-awarded media status, views of this kind remain views.
To dismiss those in disagreement as either naïve or malevolent is unsophisticated, suggesting that racial enlightenment requires comfort with a take-no-prisoners approach and facile reasoning. Not even the tragedies of America’s record on race justify saying “I’m just right, dammit!” as if the matter were as settled as the operations of gravity.
For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article “The Case for Reparations,” which appeared in The Atlantic in 2014 and focused on the injustice of redlining policies in mortgage lending until the late 1960s, stimulated a nationwide discussion. It was initially listed as a “source for consideration” in the course. However, for all the impact of that intelligent, influential and well-written article, the idea that reparations are owed is open to wide dispute. It is a proposal and one that many Black people reject. (Useful examples of that, from long before the Coates article was published, are here).
Some think that despite the injustices of the past, people in the present should achieve via their own efforts. Others contest the causal link between past discrimination and Black America’s current problems — a key plank in today’s reparations arguments. Some observe that Blackness alone is too ambiguous a concept in our endlessly hybridized society, i.e., they acknowledge what almost all believe, which is that our concept of race is a messy, contingent fiction. I think the Great Society programs, affirmative action, the loosening of welfare programs in the late 1960s, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 and other significant policies have already been conceived of as a form of reparations, if not under the name itself. Reparations advocates have some answers to those objections, but even they fail to establish reparations as a moral absolute. The issue remains a controversy.
Intersectionality is a similar matter, in part as it seems a stand-in for the more openly controversial critical race theory. The very definition of C.R.T. has become a shifting target, rather like the term “neoliberal” or what it means to say that two people dated. However, the implication in much discussion — that C.R.T. is a mere matter of the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, documenting that race, gender and other factors condition how people process life — is coy. No school of legal or academicthought could consist solely of that unexceptionable and even rather obvious observation. What worries many about C.R.T. are the conclusions its advocates draw from this intersectionality.
The original draft did not explicitly mention C.R.T., as opposed to intersectionality. However, it is reasonable to suppose that many teachers would use intersectionality as a springboard for instructing students, for example, that white people can be conceived as a single mass of domination and that racism is baked into America’s very essence in ways inescapable and unending. We must note that criticism of Crenshaw’s removal from the course — which took place in the College Board’s modified draft — often claim that detractors don’t want students to know the truth about America, something that overshoots the mere excision of the term “intersectionality” and implies a sanctioning of students being taught something broader and more judgmental.
Some C.R.T. advocates, for example, conclude that systemic oppression means that views from those oppressed via intersectionality must be accepted without question, as a kind of group narrative that renders it egregious to quibble over the details and nuances of individual experience. As the C.R.T. pioneer Richard Delgado put it, nonwhite people should protest based on a “broad story of dashed hopes and centuries-long mistreatment that afflicts an entire people and forms the historical and cultural background of your complaint.”
But this perspective, called standpoint epistemology, while intended as social justice, also questions empiricism and logic. Who really thinks that its absence from an A.P. course constitutes denying that slavery happened or that racism exists? C.R.T. advocates too often discuss white people as an undifferentiated mass, as in claims that white people resist letting go of their power, a view memorably promulgated by the legal scholar Derrick Bell. There is a rhetorical power in this sociological shorthand, but it also encourages a shallow classification of American individuals as bad white people and good everybody else. Fact this is not.
To pretend that where Blackness is concerned, certain views must be treated as truth despite intelligent and sustained critique is to give in to the illogic of standpoint epistemology: “That which rubs me the wrong way is indisputably immoral.”
And I hardly see this as applying only to people I disagree with. I have broadcast my views about race for almost a quarter century. Naturally, I consider my views correct — that’s why they are my views — and contrary to what some may suppose, conservative white people are by no means the core of people who often see things my way. I am always gladdened to find that there are quite a few Black people from all walks of life who agree with me. Yet I would protest seeing my views on race included in an A.P. course as facts or uncontested opinions.
There are certainly conservatives who think discussion of racism should be entirely barred from public life. This is, on its face, blinkered, ignorant and pathetic. But to pretend that controversial views on race from the left are truth incarnate is being dishonest about race as well. It sacrifices logic out of a quiet terror of being called racist (or, if Black, self-hating). How that is progressive or even civil in a real way is unclear to me. In being honest enough to push past the agitprop, I hate having to say that in this case, DeSantis, of all people, was probably right.
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”