Jan 25, 2023

Florida's African-American studies debate.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis / Image Gage Skidmore
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis / Image Gage Skidmore 

Is DeSantis right to support this decision?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're covering Florida's decision to block an AP course from high school. Plus, a follow-up story on Rep. George Santos (R-NY) and some good news for veterans' health. 

Quick hits.

  1. A small number of documents with classified markings were found in former Vice President Mike Pence's Indiana home last week, his lawyer said. The documents were turned over to the FBI. (The documents)
  2. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky fired at least a dozen senior officials, citing the need to clean up corruption among the country's top brass. (The firings)
  3. After weeks of negotiation, Germany announced it would agree to send 14 German-made tanks to Ukraine and authorize other countries to do the same. (The agreement)
  4. The Senate judiciary committee held a hearing with Live Nation, which owns Ticketmaster, questioning its potentially monopolistic behavior. Separately, the Justice Department and eight states sued Google for monopolistic behavior in advertising. (The hearing)
  5. New Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) blocked Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from serving on the House Intelligence Committee, citing Schiff's work on former President Donald Trump's impeachment and Swalwell's alleged ties to a Chinese intelligence operative. (The rejection)

Today's topic.

Florida's African American Studies debate. On Friday, the Florida Department of Education said it will not allow an Advanced Placement (AP) class on African American Studies to be taught in the state's public schools. The class was developed by the College Board as one of its many classes high school students could take to gain college credits. The Department of Education says the class violates a Florida law which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) introduced to fight what he describes as "woke indoctrination" in schools.

Last year, DeSantis signed the Stop WOKE Act into law, which, among other things, barred schools and employers from mandating certain racial-sensitivty training, though the law is being challenged in court. He has also passed legislation restricting how and at what age sexual orientation can be discussed in schools. The African American Studies course, whose curriculum can be found here, will be taught in 60 schools across the U.S. on a trial basis. Florida is the only state rejecting the course, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Florida education officials said the course violated state law, though they haven't specified which part. The Stop WOKE Act actually mandates teaching African American history, but limits the way ideas like capitalism, critical race theory and meritocracy can be discussed.

In a one-page document, the Florida Department of Education objected to the inclusion of teachings about the Black Lives Matter movement, reparations, Black feminism, and Black authors and historians whose work addresses critical race theory and Black Communism. In the document, the state said it objects specifically to the inclusion of Robin D.G. Kelley, a professor of American history at UCLA, who "warns that simply establishing safe spaces and renaming campus buildings does nothing to overthrow capitalism," according to the document.

The state also said that arguments in the curriculum on compensation for Black Americans for slavery and other historical atrocities through reparations does not contain any balancing opinions or critical perspectives. "All points and resources in this study advocate for reparations," the document said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis defended the decision.

“What’s one of the lessons about? Queer theory,” DeSantis said. “Now, who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory? That is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids. And so when you look to see they have stuff about intersectionality, abolishing prisons, that’s a political agenda. And so we’re on — that’s the wrong side of the line for Florida standards. 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.”

Democrats both in Florida and across the country have criticized DeSantis for the decision. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called it "incomprehensible."

“If you think about the study of Black Americans, that is what he wants to block,” Jean-Pierre said. “These types of actions aren’t new. They are not new from what we’re seeing, especially from Florida. Sadly, Florida currently bans teachers from talking about who they are and who they love.”

Today, we're going to explore some arguments from the left and right, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left criticize DeSantis, arguing that he is limiting free thought and free speech.
  • Some contend the ideas in the course are legitimate areas of study for a high school AP class.
  • Others say the ban is authoritarian overreach.

In MSNBC, Zeeshan Aleem called it an "assault on free thought."

“It’s shocking to see the state dismiss the work of widely esteemed scholars who are staples of college curricula across America — which is precisely what AP courses are meant to introduce high school students to,” Aleem wrote. “But even more shocking is the way Florida is policing ideology. The statement does not explain why these writings — which are uncontroversially parts of the Black intellectual tradition — lack educational value. It is instead just a list of ideas that Florida’s right-wing government officials think should be forbidden for discussion. Anything that registers as too vociferously antiracist, too openly left wing or too friendly to progressive activism is out.

“DeSantis seems to think that students’ mere exposure to these ideas represents an effort at proselytization. Never mind that one of the key goals of liberal arts education is to expose students to an abundance of different histories, ideas and traditions and teach them to engage with them critically. I’m sure none of Florida’s educational officials believes that studying the Confederacy is the same thing as an endorsement of slavery,” Aleem said. “Nor is it likely they think that reading about formation of racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan — as I did in school — ensures that a student will simply become a supporter of lynchings. This is to say nothing of the substance of the coursework, which is defensible on its merits. Left-wing Black intellectual critiques of racism, capitalism, and patriarchy have long been vital currents of American intellectual life.”

In Newsweek, Jason Nichols said DeSantis "banning Black studies" in schools is "disgraceful."

"DeSantis has bragged that Florida is where ‘woke goes to die,’ a slogan that has catapulted him ahead of former President Donald Trump in polling about 2024 matchups. Using the word "woke"—a term created by Black people to refer to systemic injustice—and disregarding what Black people mean by it in order to ridicule it is anti-Black... What is DeSantis afraid of?" Nichols asked. “Why would he not want students to explore inconvenient academic concepts like institutional and systemic racism and the ineffectiveness of a colorblind approach? Perhaps students will begin to question Governor DeSantis on why Florida still celebrates three Confederate holidays. They may also wonder why the state has 75 Confederate Monuments, the result of a miseducation campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

"Students at Robert E. Lee High School in Duval County may already be wondering why their school venerates the name of a man who fought for the pro-slavery Confederacy," Nichols said. "Students in Miami-Dade may learn that Overtown, an impoverished section of the city, was once a relatively prosperous Black community dubbed ‘the Harlem of the South’ before city and state officials built highways right through Overtown, displacing thousands of Black residents and upending its business district. Residents were unable to live and set up their businesses in white communities, leaving Black Miamians in overcrowded communities that have been economically decimated for generations."

In The Daily Beast, Jeremy Young argued that the ban is going to hurt students intellectually and financially.

"When politicians go to war with teachers, students always lose," he said. "Nearly 1.2 million high school students took an AP test in 2021, with over 750,000 receiving a score of at least 3 out of 5 on at least one test, the minimum score some colleges will accept for college credit… Those students earned a transferable college-level credential at a fraction of the cost of college tuition—just $97 for a successful test worth three or four college credits, which allows them to amass college credits early, thereby cutting the tuition and time it takes to graduate from college… Further, the ban on AP African American Studies makes plain the openly censorious intent of educational gag order laws.

“This law... bans course content that 'espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels' a student to believe in specific concepts about 'race, color, sex, or national origin.' Yet the course does none of those things; it merely presents essays from historical thinkers that help students understand the history of African American thought,” Young wrote. “But we now know that Florida’s gag order law bans that, too. Because the law requires courses to be ‘consistent’ with a set of principles that include support for colorblindness and meritocracy and rejection of the concept of unconscious bias (social stereotypes about groups that individuals form unconsciously), merely including essays in the course that present or debate these ideas would arguably be illegal if the law stands.”


What the right is saying.

  • The right supports the ban, arguing that the class is designed to indoctrinate students.
  • Some say the course is explicitly teaching far-left ideas without any dissenting opinions.
  • Others argue that Black history is still being taught, just not in a way that would push students into being left-wing political activists.

In The New York Post, Rich Lowry said "DeSantis is right" for rejecting the curriculum.

"Florida governor Ron DeSantis stands accused of a long parade of horribles to which has now been added a new count — allegedly opposing the teaching of African-American history," Lowry wrote. "Never mind that there’s obviously a difference between objecting to the ideological content of a pilot course that hasn’t yet been adopted and erasing the history of African Americans as such. This is the typical game of pretending that the only way to teach the history of African Americans is through the tendentious political lens favored by the Left. When red states push back against critical race theory, its proponents make it sound as if students will, as a consequence, never learn about the Transatlantic slave trade, the 13th Amendment, or Frederick Douglass.

"This is preposterous. No reasonable person opposes teaching American history fully and truthfully. (In Florida, the controversial “Stop WOKE Act” itself stipulates that instructors should teach the history of African peoples, the Middle Passage, the experience of slavery, abolition, and the effects of segregation and other forms of discrimination.) The problem is when the curriculum is used as an ideological weapon to inculcate a distorted, one-sided worldview, and here, Florida has the College Board dead to rights. The College Board hasn’t released the pilot curriculum publicly, but, as conservative writer Stanley Kurtz and a publication called the Florida Standard have documented, it really goes off the rails when it addresses contemporary issues.”

In National Review, Stanley Kurtz laid out those details.

"Most of the topics in the final quarter present controversial leftist authors as if their views were authoritative, with no critical or contrasting perspectives supplied. The scarcely disguised goal is to recruit students to various leftist political causes," Kurtz said. "The fourth quarter of the course features a topic on ‘The Movement for Black Lives.’ The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) was started by the Marxist organizers who founded Black Lives Matter. Yet M4BL extends far beyond BLM, encompassing “over 170 Black-led organizations.” M4BL is organized around an extensive policy platform, the ‘Vision for Black Lives.’ That platform is radical, to say the least. As you might expect, it includes planks such as defunding the police. M4BL’s platform goes further, however, by calling for the abolition of all money bail, and even all pretrial detention. To this end, the ‘Vision for Black Lives’ endorses federal legislation by “Squad” member, Representative Ayanna Pressley.

"Kelley also highlights the expansive nature of what he calls M4BL’s most controversial demand: reparations. For M4BL, the concept of reparations goes far beyond massive monetary awards and includes even ‘mandated changes in the school curriculum that acknowledge the impact of slavery, colonialism, and Jim Crow in producing wealth and racial inequality.’ According to Kelley, M4BL wants these changes so schools can undermine ‘the common narrative that American wealth is the product of individual hard work and initiative, while poverty results from misfortune, culture, bad behavior, or inadequate education.’ In other words, M4BL (and Kelley) want schools to inculcate the basic premises of Critical Race Theory.”

In Newsweek, Jeff Charles said DeSantis is not trying to block Black history.

“[The curriculum] features writings by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins, noted proponents of critical race theory, which would not be a problem if the course also provided viewpoints from a classical liberal perspective. But it does not,” Charles said. “The one-sided approach makes it clear that this is more about political indoctrination than teaching factual history… [Critics are] not wrong about DeSantis focusing on the culture war to push his agenda. But the notion that he is attacking Black history and trying to push "far right" education in Florida through the Stop WOKE Act is absurd on its face... Most of the people lambasting the governor and Florida Republicans over the Stop WOKE Act fall into two categories: Those who haven't read the law, and those who have read it, but are lying about it.

“The text of the legislation actually mandates the teaching of ‘[t]he history of African Americans,’ which includes the ‘development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition, and the history and contributions of African Americans of the African diaspora.’ Indeed, this is only a sliver of the teachings on Black history required under the Stop WOKE Act. This is not to say that the legislation does not have any issues. The law also applies to private businesses and universities, meaning that DeSantis is essentially using the state to dictate what private institutions are discussing with employees and college students... while the application of the Stop WOKE Act has its problems, the notion that it is intended to somehow erase Black history is easily disprovable.”


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

When Florida first started rolling out laws to limit how "critical race theory" and gender were taught in its public schools, I objected loudly. I responded to reader criticism and addressed my own bad arguments. I also followed up about a year later, last January, to write that Republicans' response to critical race theory had been worse than I thought. That response has continued to get uglier and more frightening since then.

There is a new breed of conservative, independent, right-leaning pundits and politicians whose rhetoric, on paper, is very appealing to me. They are people in the mold of everyone from Ron DeSantis to Elon Musk who pay a great deal of lip service to free speech, free thought and the open debate of controversial ideas. These same folks often criticize language policing and the overly sensitive left, while insisting that uncomfortable, offensive ideas — and sometimes even misinformation — should all be discussed out in the open in the name of free expression and free thought.

And I agree with what they’re saying wholeheartedly. I'm the guy who wanted the Hunter Biden laptop story to run freely on Twitter, disagreed with the deplatforming of Trump, called for the allowance of misinformation and conspiracy theories in the public discourse so they might be debated, and I’ve repeatedly expressed my disdain for our culture of constant victimization.

Which is why the actions of people like DeSantis and Musk, which are so contrary to their own rhetoric, are so unbelievably infuriating.

When I wrote about Florida's "parental rights" or "don't say gay” bill (depending on who was talking about it), one common refrain from the bill’s supporters was that its main goal is to protect the innocence of children. Won’t there be third graders who might get confused? Five-year-olds who didn't need exposure to ideas about adult sexuality? Little girls who could be confused about their own gender by learning of trans adults? All these questions are worth considering. Ultimately, at what age should a kid be taught about gender and sex? It’s not simple.

But how do you justify this?

These are juniors and seniors in high school who are applying for and voluntarily electing to study advanced college level classes. Most are surely old enough to drive. Many, in Florida, could enroll in the military or legally consent to sex. In some states, a lot of these students could buy a gun. But they can't handle reading Angela Davis? They can't read arguments for reparations or communism? Is this really what we are doing in the United States of America?

And it’s worth emphasizing that these students would be selecting these classes, they are not obligated to enroll. If they knew they wanted to major in Black studies, they could knock off college credits to save money and time at college. Do we really believe their own governor should be able to stop them?

Rich Lowry, whose writing I respect a great deal (and who gets cited in this newsletter a lot), wrote that, "When red states push back against critical race theory, its proponents make it sound as if students will, as a consequence, never learn about the Transatlantic slave trade, the 13th Amendment, or Frederick Douglass."

No. What's actually happening is that people like Lowry are pretending that this Black studies class is going to replace literally everything else students learn about American history. Lowry, and others, make it sound as if learning about Black communism, Black queer theory and Black activist movements in a single class means students will never encounter capitalism, Columbus, Christianity, Martin Luther King Jr. and heterosexual marriage. It’s akin to arguing that teaching the south’s perspective about the Confederacy will “indoctrinate” kids, even if they’re taught the Union’s perspective, too. The reality Lowry is constructing is completely backwards — in fact, the argument he is using is precisely the argument that should compel him to change his stance.

Florida students obviously learn about the Transatlantic slave trade, the 13th Amendment, and Frederick Douglass. I'm sure they also learn about the Confederacy and the KKK, Nazi Germany, the pilgrims, European colonizers and wars with Native Americans. Many of the texts they read — indeed, most of them — will be written by the victors, as is true with nearly all of history. When the victors of the Revolutionary War also helped perpetrate the Atlantic Slave Trade, there are going to be obvious complications in how to frame that part of American history. Having an AP African American Studies course that dives deep into African American history and the thoughts of Black scholars, even fringe and extreme views, should be a completely "in-bounds" way to expand a student's thoughts about this history. Shoot, teachers in Germany are (rightly) arguing that they should be teaching kids about Mein Kampf, while here in America we are boxing out Eduardo Bonilla-Silva?

If you're worried exposure to these ideas will compel them to believe the writers, that is an indictment of the counter-arguments — not of the writers and scholars themselves.

Of course, even sillier is the same impact this kind of censorship has: The Streisand Effect. Do you think 17 year olds hearing about a book they are not supposed to read — indeed, not allowed to read — won't have their curiosity ignited? Do you suppose they will decide these forbidden texts are uninteresting and unworthy of their time? Of course not. DeSantis has now heaped more fame and interest onto the Black scholars he loathes, and many high schoolers in Florida are certain to seek them out with even more reverence and energy than they did before, which is true of almost all kinds of censorship in all contexts.

There is another problem with this entire game DeSantis has started: Education can often feel like indoctrination when the shoe is on the other foot. What happens when a liberal governor takes over a state like Texas and decides that curriculum teaching the Confederate side of the war is "indoctrination" for gun violence? Or insurrection? Or white supremacy? Will we sweep that entire part of our history under the rug and tell kids that maybe they’ll learn about it if they go to college?

Yesterday, when I wrote about the ridiculous reparations proposal in San Francisco, I said that a better form of reparations included, among other things, a "reckoning and acknowledgment of the sordid parts of our racial history." Part of that reckoning includes accepting a wider diversity of narratives about our history, and engaging narratives outside the same ones being retold by the same people over and over. That exercise does and should include giving a slice (and that’s all one AP high school course is, one small slice) to controversial and biting Black scholars, many of whom hold views I find often unconvincing, regularly thought-provoking, sometimes offensive and occasionally persuasive.

Ignoring, censoring, or rejecting those voices because they include fringe political positions is antithetical to everything our country, and people like Ron DeSantis, claim they stand for. It's embarrassing and dispiriting. Anyone who truly cares about free thought, free speech and a genuine exchange of free ideas should roundly reject it.


Your questions, answered.

Today's "my take" was a little longer than usual, so we're skipping our reader question today. If you want to ask a question and have it answered in the newsletter, you can reply to this email or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The mystery over Rep. George Santos's (R-NY) $700,000 in loans to his own campaign is only deepening. In previous filings with the Federal Election Commission, Santos included paperwork stating that he had lent his own campaign $700,000 of his personal money. That filing sparked questions about how, exactly, Santos had made enough money to loan himself $700,000. But now, in amended financial disclosure forms, Santos unmarked a box that indicated $500,000 of those loans came from his own personal money. Santos's lawyer, Joe Murray, said it would be "inappropriate" to comment on the change due to pending investigations. Campaign finance experts say they are befuddled by the change, and unsure how to interpret it. The Daily Beast broke the story and The New York Times has some more context.


Numbers.

  • One in 10. The number of parents who ranked "making sure that schools do not teach critical race theory" as one of their top three priorities for their kids’ education, according to a national survey by Hart Research Associates.
  • 74%. The percentage of parents surveyed by Hart who say teachers generally stick to teaching appropriate academic content.
  • 21%. The percentage of parents who believe teachers often go too far in promoting a "woke" political agenda in classrooms.
  • 86%. The percentage of Republican Florida voters who have a favorable view of Ron DeSantis, according to a Ragnar poll.
  • 2014. The last time the College Board introduced a new class, before unveiling the Advanced Placement African American Studies course.

Have a nice day.

Starting on Tuesday, all U.S. military veterans who are in suicidal crisis will be eligible for free care at any Veterans Affair location or private facility. Unlike other medical benefits, veterans do not have to be enrolled in the VA system to be eligible for the free emergency mental health care. The new policy will include up to 30 days of inpatient care and 90 days of follow-up outpatient care, and is being introduced to help address the mental health crisis among U.S. veterans. 6,146 veterans died by suicide in 2020, or an average of 16.8 per day, and roughly 5,000 veterans are hospitalized in acute psychiatric units every month.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate help, call or text 988 to connect with the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.


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