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On Wednesday, February 1st, the first day of Black History Month, the College Board released its long-awaited curriculum for a new Advanced Placement class in African American studies. Two weeks earlier, the Florida Department of Education had rejected the course, claiming that it “lacks educational value and is contrary to Florida law.” Then, nearly a week later, Manny Diaz, Jr., the state’s commissioner of education, released a flyer listing his complaints, based on a pilot version of the course. They included the fact that there were units on intersectionality and activism, Black queer studies, “Black Feminist Literary Thought,” reparations, and “Black Study and the Black Struggle in the 21st Century.” The Movement for Black Lives—which brought out the largest demonstrations in American history, in the summer of 2020, with more than twenty million people participating—was dismissed as a topic of study.

What is Black studies? Why is this not just Black history?

So what do you think happened with the College Board and this course?

There’s two levels. One is that it’s about Ron DeSantis possibly running for President. I think that’s the most important thing, because, no matter what we think about DeSantis and his policies, we know he went to Yale University, and majored in history and political science with a 3.7 G.P.A., which means that he was at one of the premier institutions for history. That’s why I get frustrated when people say he needs to take a class. He took the class. He knows better. He knows that the culture wars actually win votes. He’s trying to get the Trump constituency.

So I think this is about Ron DeSantis wanting to run for President. But I also think that the focus on Florida occludes a bigger story. As you know, this goes back to the Trump years—well before Trump, but let’s just talk about the Trump years—the attack on the 1619 Project, Chris Rufo’s strategy of turning critical race theory into an epithet by denying it any meaning whatsoever. And creating a buzzword. That’s actually a strategy that has nothing to do with the field of African American studies; it has everything to do with vilifying a field—attacking the whole concept of racial justice and equity. So, to me, if DeSantis never banned the class, we would still be in this situation. And although it is true that a number of states did accept the pilot program for the A.P. class, some of those same states have passed, or are about to pass, laws that are banning or limiting what they’re calling critical race theory. So there is a general assault on knowledge, but specifically knowledge that interrogates issues of race, sex, gender, and even class.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the people who are targeted are you, Angela Davis, myself, bell hooks. To say that we’re not radical would be a lie. What does radical actually mean? What it means, what Black studies is about, is trying to understand how the system works and recognizing that the way the system works now benefits a few at the expense of the many. It’s easy to allow someone to come in, in the name of Black status, and say, “We’re going to talk about ancient Africa, and the great achievements of the Kush of ancient Egypt.” That’s not a threat—not as much as the idea of critical race theory saying that, no matter what policies and procedures and legislation are implemented, the structure of racism, embedded in a capitalist system, embedded in a system of patriarchy, continues to create wealth for some and make the rest of our lives precarious. Precarious in terms of money, precarious in terms of police violence, precarious in terms of environmental catastrophe, precarious in many, many ways. And I think people could agree with me that that’s why we do this scholarship: because we’re trying to figure out a way to make a better future. You know, that’s the whole point. And if that’s subversive, then say it, but it’s definitely not indoctrination, because indoctrination is a state that bans books.

I think one of the ways that this discussion about African American studies has been distorted is that the right claims that, if you are radical and on the left, it is disqualifying as a teacher and an author. In an article published by National Review about the A.P. course, the author said that you were prima-facie disqualified, because your first book was about the Communist Party in Alabama. If you have radical ideas, or radical politics, they claim, you’re more interested in indoctrination than you are in teaching. And so I wonder how you would respond to that—if parents are concerned that, because you are a socialist, or an activist, or embrace, you know, causes on behalf of people, you can’t teach objectively.

Right, of course it’s ridiculous. We have outright conservatives—sometimes just actual confessed white supremacists—who are teaching at all levels. Stanley Kurtz, who wrote that article, was a professor, he got a Ph.D. And he’s writing for a partisan publication. But his credentials are not in question. In fact, he not only is doing that but he’s doing something neither one of us is doing: he’s writing legislation—literally writing legislation for states to ban critical race theory. [In an e-mail, Kurtz acknowledged that a Texas C.R.T. law was partly based on model legislation he authored.]

Our job, as educators, is to open up all students to the world—which is the root of university, universitas. We can do that and still take a political perspective, because we are actual people, right? What I think would disqualify any teacher is to say, “You know what, we’re not going to touch that. That’s off limits.” Unless it’s some made-up, useless piece of information. Generally, we teach in a way that opens up debate and discussion. We encourage disagreement, between us and our students or between students. We don’t necessarily reveal in our classes what our political stakes are. We choose readings that are across the board. And the evidence of it is there in the syllabi, it’s there in the actual teaching evaluations, it’s there in the colleagues who decide that we’re worthy of being hired.

I always tell my students, “I don’t need you to think like me, I need you to think for yourself. And I’m here to help you think critically about everything, and to ask a million questions and try to figure out how to answer them.” It is the right that is actually saying, “Don’t read this book, don’t listen to this person, don’t have this conversation.” I don’t know if that’s ironic—it’s just rank hypocrisy. In the so-called concern about the left ruling the campuses, what we actually have is an onslaught by the right wing to control what we read, who we talk to, and what we talk about.

It’s funny, because they were trying to attack you when you tweeted that the police are not actually helping us and that we have to think about abolition—and yet no one is called into account for arguing that we actually need more police and we need to spend more money. They’re both actual political positions. They’re positions that could be argued, rationally, with evidence.

It’s all politics; it’s just whose politics do you agree with? They want to teach the 1776 Commission, and think that that is O.K., even though that is also a political viewpoint of the world. It’s looking at American history through a particular kind of lens, and that’s O.K. But, if you look at it through a different lens, through a different set of experiences, then it’s somehow indoctrination, propaganda, and something that should be dismissed.

And yet, despite all of these contradictions, they have a tremendous amount of momentum. The 1619 Project has been banned in many localities. Every day, there’s a new state that is finding some way to ban the discussion of critical race theory. What happens next?

I work with a number of organizations, but one in particular, called Communiversity, is a project of Black workers for justice in North Carolina. And what we’ve been talking about is what they’re talking about in Detroit, which is going back to the Freedom Schools idea. The United States might look like Mississippi did in 1960. So, if we cannot provide a fair and objective and useful education in public schools, then movements will have to create alternative institutions and structures.

On the other hand, it’s worth fighting at the legislative level, at the school-board level. And the thing is, the grounds for this were established a long time ago. Do you remember, back in the nineteen-nineties, the whole movement to eliminate school boards and put schools in the hands of mayors? And I’m not talking about the South. I’m talking about New York, Chicago, places like that, saying that somehow school boards are tainted. Why? Because they’re grassroots, or have some kind of relationship to the community.

So the fact is that we’ve been moving in this direction, where you have government input into a public education. Florida is a good example, where the former governor Rick Scott was promoting special incentives for high schools that develop STEM programming and none for those that invest in the humanities at the public-school level. Now, this may not sound like an attack on critical race theory, but it’s certainly an attack on critical thinking. What they want to do is reduce public schools to vocational schools. Meanwhile, if you’re rich, and you go to private school, you could do anything you want. You can read the best of literature, you can read the best of art criticism, you can be free—and that is your ticket to Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, and to do whatever the hell you want to do. So it is reproducing this kind of class inequality. The architecture for doing so is already there.

This content was originally published here.

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