What’s really behind Florida’s attack on African American Studies

Opinion by Leslie Kay Jones, CNN.com,  Feb 3, 2023.

As a student growing up in Florida, I vividly recall my International Baccalaureate English teacher inviting students to read “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in their best voice impressions of a formerly enslaved Black woman. She smirked as they giggled out phrases like “de nigger woman is de mule uh de world” and peeked at me, one of the few Black students, for a response. When we read Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” my classmates offered to buy me for cowrie shells.

None of these experiences were considered “teaching kids to hate each other.” Hate, it seems, only arises when all students are exposed to the ideas of Black historians, Black social scientists and Black lawyers.

At least that’s what Florida’s Republican-controlled Department of Education might have you believe. The department has been stoking division among its constituents by singling out African American Studies (AAS) as a site of “indoctrination,” first for employees, and now for students.

Last month, Florida sent a letter to the College Board rejecting its proposed Advanced Placement African American Studies course, citing concerns about six topics of study, including the Movement for Black Lives, Black feminism and reparations. Gov. Ron DeSantis said the course violates the so-called Stop WOKE Act, which he signed last year, and the state criticized the course’s inclusion of work by a number of scholars, including me.

The law DeSantis cited prohibits teaching multiple concepts purportedly related to race and identity — none of which are espoused either by African American Studies or the oft-targeted academic field of critical race theory (CRT). In particular, the idea that “members of one race, color, national origin, or sex are morally superior” is not a claim made by any of the foundational critical race theory texts that the DeSantis administration has targeted for censorship. Nor does critical race theory as a field argue that any individual or group is inherently racist.

The conclusion that CRT argues that a person’s moral character is determined by their identity is an additional blatant misrepresentation of the field, because CRT is not concerned with moral character at all. Instead, as a field that emerges from legal debate, critical race theory is primarily concerned with debating how beliefs about racial differences have affected the application of law across time and place.

There is a very good explanation for the choice to focus public attention on false definitions of critical race theory. By assigning values to CRT that many people will find offensive or morally repugnant, the DeSantis administration can gain public support for censoring the group of people who are most likely to cite research categorized as CRT or be cited by scholars using CRT — African Americans.

If CRT teaches that some people are better than other people (it doesn’t), or that White children are to blame for the actions of White people across history (it doesn’t), then White parents should regard the people who write about CRT as dangerous influences.

By villainizing CRT and then representing African American Studies as synonymous with CRT, the DeSantis administration paved the way to convince the public that the accurate teaching of African American Studies as a field of research was a Trojan horse for teaching students “to hate.”

What does DeSantis have to gain from making these claims and targeting African American Studies in particular for censorship? It has to do with power. African American Studies, which harkens back to the American Civil Rights Movement, has always been concerned with understanding Black life in America through rigorous research and debate.

Since historical institutions like slavery and segregation shaped the social and economic realities of Black people, one goal of African American Studies has been to rigorously record, analyze and explain how these institutions functioned and on what basis they were justified. This necessarily involved engaging with primary documents, from legal to religious, that rationalized different social conditions for Black and White people.

Take, for example, this argument from Thomas Jefferson:

“Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”

Or, we might consider this excerpt from the speech of John A. Jeffrey delivered to a Ku Klux Klan meeting and published in the Ku Klux Klan newspaper “The Watcher on the Tower” in October 1923:

“We are not anti anything, but we are absolutely Pro Uncle Sam. We hold nothing against a man on account of his religion so long as he is at all times an American first and everything in the whole world afterwards. Also we sing no hymn of hate, but do want to keep this a white man’s country. We believe in Brown Supremacy in Japan, Yellow Supremacy in China and Chocolate Supremacy in Greece, but in America a White Man’s country, we believe in White Supremacy, and we don’t care how soon the other fellow goes back to his own country where he can have the kind of supremacy he likes.”

African American Studies is a rigorous scholarly response to real political arguments made in the public sphere, from foundational government documents to majority court opinions to popular political rallies, which demonstrate that race operates as a hierarchy in American social life. As a result, it often challenges the ideology that race is a natural, instinctive way to understand human difference.

Without the veneer of nature, it is much harder to deny the ways that specific political ideologies create very different social and economic conditions for different categories of people. Lying about these theories, as the state of Florida has done, allows conservative ideologues to couch ideological censorship within the language of an objective morality.

Even though African American Studies uses the experiences of Black Americans to understand how categorizing people shapes our social world, race is not the only hierarchy that AAS scholars examine. The much-maligned theory of intersectionality doesn’t (as Florida wrongly claimed) “rank people based on race, wealth, gender, and sexual orientation.” Instead, it explains how being part of multiple social categories can change the way people experience social systems.

For example, being Black or Asian can affect the specific advocacy needs of women who are affected by domestic violence or create additional complexities, like language barriers, for women’s shelters serving an immigrant population. We should be skeptical of any person or group who attempts to represent these ideas as “ranking people.”

DeSantis’s argumentation is founded on the basic assumption that learning about disparate racial experiences in the United States will “indoctrinate” people to hate the United States. This rather sounds like a concession that DeSantis is ashamed of the US and believes that the best way to prevent other people from also feeling ashamed is to cut them off from historical facts and political debates.

When DeSantis states, “We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other,” I must ask where “hate” is being stoked in African American Studies. Is it in the factual teaching that enslaved Black people were considered three-fifths of a human being?

The history books that I studied in Florida (and which appear on the AP US Government and Politics curriculum) celebrate the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, whose hypocrisy on matters of race is well documented; he wrote extensively about Black biological and intellectual inferiority. High school students are asked to hold as truth that national leaders can engage in visceral hatred of Black people, yet still produce ideas worthy of study and even aspiration. This attack against African American Studies is not motivated by the value of intellectual balance, but by ideological posturing.

Leslie Kay Jones is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Rutgers New Brunswick, specializing in social movements. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

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