On January 19th 2023, the governor of Florida Ron DeSantis’ administration rejected a new African American Studies high school Advanced Placement course, claiming that it not only violated state law, but that it also lacked educational value.
Ron DeSantis’ recent actions to suppress dissent in science in Florida must be seen as an effort to drum up support from the conservative base within the Republican party, whose likely presidential candidate DeSantis is for the upcoming election in 2024.
As I am writing this in late April, coverage of this decision and reactions to it are still ongoing. This column describes this case of public controversy and instance of suppression of dissent of science in society.
African American Studies Advanced Placement Course
The College Board, a non-for-profit association consisting of over 6,000 educational institutions, established the Advanced Placement (AP) program so that, by taking AP exams while still enrolled in high school, students could achieve advanced placement in tertiary institutions. The AP program has been collaborating with high schools, colleges, and universities for more than ten years to develop an AP course in African American Studies.
The course has been designed as an interdisciplinary course, drawing from literature, the arts, the humanities, political science, geography, and science to illuminate African Americans’ vital contributions to and experiences in American society. More than 200 colleges and universities have already pledged to support AP African American Studies.
Thus, it came as somewhat of a surprise to many when the Florida Department of Education refused the College Board to expand the AP African American Studies pilot project to the state. The department cited concerns about lesson plan topics such as Black Queer Studies, the Black Lives Matter movement, Black Feminist Literary Thought, the reparations movement, and the Black Struggle in the 21st Century.
The government officials also worried about some of the authors whose works would be part of the AP course because they were considered communists or wrote about the ideology. The department further objected to the course’s lesson subject of reparations which would explore the notion that descendants of enslaved people should be financially reimbursed. They claimed reparations were endorsed uncritically by the course’s planners.
Ron DeSantis’ Florida
Florida is the second most populous Southern state after Texas with about 22 million inhabitants. Within the United States, it is one of the states with the fastest growing immigrant population. In 1865, the conclusion of the American Civil War brought an end to slavery in Florida.
The next decades until the American Civil Rights Movement began in the 1950s, politicians disenfranchised African Americans in the state and established segregation, a system of legalized discrimination. Since 2019, Republican Ron DeSantis has served as governor of Florida after having been a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for five years.
In January, his Department of Education wrote a letter to the College Board claiming that it would reopen the discussion should the College Board be willing to come back to the table with lawful, historically accurate content.
Ron DeSantis’ government has a history of making controversial changes to the state’s education curriculum especially regarding how schools teach race as a social concept. In April 2022, DeSantis signed what he has called his “stop woke act”, prohibiting teachers from educating students on critical race theory, a legal concept dating back to the 1980s.
Critical race theory states that in the United States racial disparities are systemic, in contrast to just being a collection of prejudices individuals hold. Lessons about The 1619 Project, a New York Times U.S. history project that reviews the results of slavery while emphasizing African American’s contributions, have been barred by Florida’s government as well.
Having declared Florida the state where woke goes to die, Governor Ron DeSantis has a history of authorizing laws which limit schools’ agency in what aspects of history can be taught.
Positive Consequences of Suppression
Although political control obviously results in negative consequences, some outcomes might, in the long term, be advantageous to society. First, organizations might become more active in protecting and fostering scientists’ freedom of speech.
Second, the affected scientists could become more active in the public and politics through science advocacy. Third, through public advocacy journalism, journalists might take on a more active role in society. Fourth, citizens’ engagement in public discussions of science could improve.1
Thus, the public outcry over Ron DeSantis’ Department of Education’s decision to reject a new Advanced Placement course on African American Studies for Florida’s high school students might be advantageous to American society in the long run.
Just a few days after the department’s decision, African American civil rights attorney Ben Crump had gathered three high school students who were threatening to sue Ron DeSantis for violating their constitutional rights. Journalist Bea L. Hines reminded the government of Florida on February 3rd that “Black history is American history” and that “you can’t teach one without teaching the other.”2
On February 15th, several hundred mostly black protesters demonstrated against the governor’s policies in Tallahassee, the state capitol of Florida. To the observer studying the suppression of dissent in science in society, it seems like Advanced Placement African American Studies courses are not going down without a fight in Florida in the near future.
Black Americans are at the center of my own dissertation project “Free Fraeulein – German Women and African American Men during Germany’s Hunger Years, 1945-1949. Thus, Ron DeSantis’ attempts to prevent future college students from taking AP African American Studies classes could effect the future of my academic field in terms of both teaching and future scientific knowledge production.
1 Sampsa Saikkonen, “Freedom of speech in science” (lecture, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland, accessed March 23,2023).
2 Bea L. Hines, “Gov. DeSantis, despite your efforts, we’ll always share our truths about our Black, American history,” Miami Herald, February 3, 2023.
Anne Brixius is a doctoral researcher in History and Cultural Heritage and a member of the North American Studies program at the University of Helsinki.
The expert article is part of a series of columns on current US issues written by the Finnish American Studies Association (FASA) for SAM Magazine.