A display of banned books at the San Jose Public Library (Photo courtesy of San Jose Public Library via Flickr | CC-BY-SA 2.0/The Daily Montanan).
It’s tough to decide what’s more odious: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ racist, authoritarian, and nakedly political power play rejecting an Advanced Placement course on African American studies, or the College Board’s cowardly decision to revise the course in the face of this thuggish criticism.
The board’s decision has effectively erased broad swaths of history, dropping topics such as Black Lives Matter, which is now central to the modern civil rights movement; reparations for slavery, and queer theory – a double-whammy that attacks both Black people and LGBTQ Americans — who also are Black. These topics are now only included as recommendations for end–of-the-year projects that students could undertake on their own, NPR reported.
In a statement, the College Board denied that it was bowing to political pressure, arguing that “No one is excluded from this course.” Though that sounds much more like an exercise in face-saving. And it’s a win for DeSantis, who’s burnishing his credentials for an all-but-declared White House bid in 2024.
Forget for a moment that this gobsmacking collapse of backbone has empowered a fearful and noisy minority, supposedly dedicated to the freedoms embedded in the Constitution, to dictate education policy for the rest of us.
Instead, consider the absolutely chilling effect this will have on classroom discussions when students, Black, brown, and white, quite reasonably try to ask questions about the news they’re seeing on TV or what they’re talking about around the dinner table.
“Sorry kids,” the teacher, fearing prosecution, will answer. “The government has banned any and all discussion of these topics. Best of luck trying to be an informed citizen.”
If you think that’s hyperbole, it’s not. In Florida, two school districts told their teachers to temporarily hide books to avoid felony charges, the Washington Post reported.
And in Pennsylvania, in the very same deep blue Philadelphia suburbs that have put Democrats into office for the last two campaign cycles, officials in one school district defied a federal investigation and moved ahead with a policy censoring classroom decor and discussions – a move widely viewed as targeting LGBTQ students, WHYY-FM in Philadelphia reported.
There always has been a corrosive element of know-nothingism, a fear of the foreign and different, in our politics, and hence, our classrooms.
In the 1850s, the nativist political party of the same name flourished by training its sights on the wave of German and Irish immigrants who were viewed as a threat to the established white, Protestant order. A century later, in the 1950s, U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy, R-Wisc., led anti-communist purges that had an undeniable taint of antisemitism to them.
But we could at least be assured that Americans wanted to know something, and had not completely pulled the gangplank up behind them.
Consider the way the nation rallied around President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 call to put boots on the moon by decade’s end. And despite the complaints of some, we’ve welcomed wave after wave after wave of refugees into our communities – most recently Afghans and Ukrainians fleeing the ravages of war in their homelands.
But this latest attack on knowledge, this disparagement of our fellow citizens who have fought for decades to emerge from the shadows of bigotry and discrimination, has a malevolence and mean-spiritedness that echoes the worst of our history – even as it reaches new depths of cruelty.
Data show a frightening rise in antisemitic attacks – reaching a historic high in 2021. Transgender Americans also remain at risk of violent attack. And as the tragic death of Tyre Nichols reminds us, there is still a profound – and too often fatal – hostility between Black Americans and law enforcement.
Yet, against this backdrop, those in power have decided that the best recourse is to strip us – and more critically – our children, of the very tools that could put an end to the cycle of violence: knowledge of our differences, our experiences, and, yes, even those things that bring us together.
Critics falsely call this education on our shared humanity indoctrination. But as my colleague Sonny Albarado, of the Arkansas Advocate, writes so eloquently, it’s really about the powerful mounting a rear-guard action to protect their privilege against a world they are powerless to keep from changing around them.
This Tuesday marked the start of Black History Month across the nation. But there is no doubt that Black history is history. It is too broad, too rich, and too central to the American experience to be confined to a single month.
And we need it more than ever.
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