AP African American Studies and Florida

Public education becomes political agenda as AP African American Studies and critical race theory are banned in Florida.


Keren Fedida / Unsplash

Classroom libraries across Florida are searched for unvetted materials. Those books that don’t make the cut are pulled from the shelves, permanently.

Florida isn’t the first U.S. state to have banned critical race theory in public education, but it’s the latest to do so, and with an additional measure, banning AP African American Studies from a place in classrooms.

In the words of American actor Morgan Freeman, Black history is American history. Since 1955, College Board has offered intense courses that offer college credit in ten umbrella subjects, one of them being history. Classes that dive into specific sections of history, such as AP United States History and AP World History, are already largely popular with high schools. So with a topic that’s so fundamental and intertwined with American history, along with the Black Lives Matter movement, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s a growing effort to teach students about African American history

So what exactly were the given reasons why AP African American Studies was rejected in Florida? Governor Ron DeSantis asserted that its creation was fundamentally steeped in political pressure. He also claimed that its curriculum was historically inaccurate and without educational value. “That’s the wrong side of the line for Florida standards,” he said at a press conference in Jacksonville, Florida. “We believe in teaching kids facts and how to think, but we don’t believe they should have an agenda imposed on them. When you try to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes.”

The course itself is separated into four parts that discuss the African diaspora, enslavement and resistance, the practice of freedom, and relevant movements to date. The pilot course is already being taught at two high schools in Arkansas, one of them being Little Rock Central High School. Little Rock High made history through the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine African American students enrolled into a previously segregated high school after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that made segregation in schools unconstitutional. 

Beyond the publicly stated logic for the ban, it’s important to look at the unstated reasons behind why AP African American Studies was rejected. After initially banning the course in early February 2023, Florida offered a compromise to College Board that would allow the course, but only under the condition that it removed all the topics that Governor DeSantis and Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. did not approve of. In a tweet from Diaz, the “obvious violations of Florida law” included Intersectionality and Activism, Black Queer Studies, Movements for Black Lives, Black Feminist Literary Thought, The Reparations Movement, and Black Study and Black Struggle in the 21st Century. 

In a letter to Florida, College Board stated that they had never received written notice from the Florida Department of Education that the course violated state law, even after multiple requests. According to them, Diaz’s tweet was the first written objection that they had received. College Board later refuted the list of objected topics, saying that four of the six topics were not even present in the pilot course’s framework. 

It’s one thing to have a course rejected by an Education Commissioner for politically-neutral, education-concerning reasons, but it’s another thing to have a politician’s say in the matter. A Florida law that banned critical race theory set the legal foundations for AP African American Studies to be legally banned. For years now, critical race theory — or CRT — has received polarizing responses from every corner of politics; Fox News has already mentioned it 1,300 times in under four months. The controversy stems from CRT’s key principles: one, that race is a byproduct of society, not biology, two, that the system we operate in is racist and will always be racist as long as it continues to maintain its original purpose to define and divide white and non-white people, and three, that it’s important to recognize the effects of racism and to take into account the experiences of its targets. 

The last tenet, in recognition of racism, has been massively unpopular with agendas that line up with DeSantis’ own.  And in the AP African American Studies curriculum, critical race theory would be an essential component in most lessons, especially the ones centered around the civil rights movements. 

While Florida remains a glaring example of CRT pushback, many states proposed banning CRT in schools. The legislation was struck down in some and passed in others, while the majority are pending final decisions. 18 other states besides Florida have already passed anti-CRT laws that restrict teaching about race or racism in schools, stating that those topics can cause students to feel guilty over the past actions of their race. 

But the anti-CRT movement isn’t just about CRT itself; it’s also about controlling public education and using it to further political agendas. This isn’t the first time that Florida has encroached on public education through constraining laws and proposals. If passed, newly proposed bill HB 1223 would prevent school employees from both asking students for their preferred pronouns and using them if the pronouns “do not correspond to his or her sex.”

It’s a disturbing continuation of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed in Florida, also known as HB 1557. Since last July, talk of sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade has been prohibited in Florida classrooms. The ambiguity of this bill leaves much up for interpretation, not specifying whether focusing on LGBTQ+ topics or merely acknowledging a person’s gender or sexuality would be violating the law. A proposed amendment, hastily pulled less than an hour before the Florida House was due to discuss the then-bill, would have made principals ‘out’ students who revealed a non-heteronormative gender or sexuality within six weeks to their parents. 

In addition, certain flags, by virtue of political nature, are not allowed to be hung in classrooms. Last April, a high school teacher was ordered to take down a rainbow flag because its message — intended to be love and acceptance of all — was deemed too political in nature. After proposing to restrict the displaying of any flag that “promote a political issue”, Miami-Dade County ultimately did not move forward with the policy after concerns about violations of free speech arose.

Ever since late January 2023, Florida teachers have been struggling to comply with a new law that requires classroom library books to be pre-approved, with violations able to be charged as a third-degree felony. Approval is a lengthy process; all materials need to be vetted by a school district employee with a valid educational media specialist certificate. In the blurred gap between a felony charge and an uninterrupted learning experience, some teachers have chosen to block access to libraries altogether, covering them in chart paper or boxing them up instead of having them scrutinized. 

In Duval County, Florida, 176 books and counting have already been pulled from shelves. Many titles were from a collection purchased by the district in 2021 called the Essential Voices Classroom Libraries Collection. They promote diversity in race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity. In the purge, books like Before She Was Harriet and Barbed Wire Baseball: How One Man Brought Hope to the Japanese Internment Camps of WWII were removed. 

Also removed was Sam!, the story of a transgender boy by queer author Dani Gabriel. Gabriel wrote Sam! in response to the lack of children’s literature surrounding transgender boys. The novel is largely based around Gabriel’s own son, Sam, after he came out as transgender. Later, in a 3-2 vote on February 20th, And Tango Makes Three was also banned. Duval County school district board member David Williams voted for the ban, stating that he did so because “it’s two male penguins raising a chick.” And Tango Makes Three is based on the true story of two male penguins at Central Park Zoo in New York. 

With a continuing trend of bans and restrictions, it’s unclear whether there’s an end in sight for Florida. Beyond the classroom, other proposed bills include banning the Democratic party in Florida, permitting only certain flags such as the Confederate flag in government buildings, treatment bans for transgender children.   

The banning of AP African American Studies is already being questioned by officials across the country. In Washington D.C., White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre sheds more light on the nature of this action saying, “Let’s be clear. They didn’t block AP European history. They didn’t block our art history. They didn’t block our music history.”

Florida’s reaction to the implementation of AP African American Studies is a clear example of just why the course is needed in classrooms everywhere. It poses the question of why both parents and politicians are now dictating what is being taught in classrooms, as well as where the line between an unappealing and an unsafe topic lies. When education is used for political purposes, it either becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the two, or it makes it easier to label disagreeing topics as simply unsafe. 

To many people, Florida’s actions are a clear violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Save Your Six, a civil rights advocacy group, has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) against DeSantis and the Florida DOE. In addition, prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump has planned to sue DeSantis over his censorship of AP African American Studies. Previously, Crump has represented the grieving family of Trayvon Martin after his murder at the hands of policeman George Zimmerman.

Other states had a polarizing response. Illinois and New Jersey warned College Board about their own terms that they would not accept the course under; for them, it was the censoring of content meant to be taught in the course. Jersey Governor Phil Murphy expanded the course’s reach to 26 schools, starting the next school year. 

Florida’s reaction to the implementation of AP African American Studies is a clear example of just why the course is needed in classrooms everywhere.