On Feb. 1 – the first day of Black History Month – the College Board released the official curriculum for its new Advanced Placement course in African American Studies. The curriculum was missing several topics and scholars included in an earlier version that had been heavily criticized by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – a Republican considering a presidential run in 2024 – among other political conservatives.
Among those who had been stripped from the curriculum were Black writers associated with critical race theory, Black feminism and Black queer studies. Additionally, hot-button issues including mass incarceration, reparations for slavery and the Black Lives Matter movement were left out of the formal curriculum. They’re now only included as themes students may consider for research projects.
We sat down with LaVonna Lewis, Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and professor (teaching) at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, to discuss the controversy over the revised African American studies curriculum and how understanding the legacy of racism in America will help future leaders develop more equitable public policies.
Q: What was your first reaction to hearing that the College Board had removed several writers including bell hooks (who wrote about Black feminism) and Kimberlé Crenshaw (who writes about critical race theory) and left out the Black Lives Matter movement from their A.P. curriculum?
A: My first reaction was anger and frustration about this attack on what people want others to know about the history of Black people in this country. Preventing people from knowing more means you’re comfortable with the idea of people being locked into bad information and not knowing the truth about our history and what it might mean for the future of people in this country.
We are living through a time where people are trying to erase people who look like me and our contributions – and we’re seeing it with other groups, too. There is a concerted effort to say that we want things the way that they used to be where there was only one dominant voice in the room. That voice was white, male, Christian, heterosexual, and able-bodied, and anyone else that says, ‘I have a right to exist, I have made a contribution, I have added value to this American enterprise,’ must deal with people basically saying, ‘you don’t matter.’
Q: What will be the consequences of these topics and scholars being removed from the College Board’s A.P. curriculum?
A: The exclusion of scholars and topics sends a signal about what you need to know to consider yourself advanced in your understanding of the issue. By dumbing down the curriculum, they’re saying that they’re okay with ‘advanced placement’ – or, for me, proficiency – being something very, very different. The consequence will be that people can say that they know a lot, because they have this credential, but the reality is, they may know very little, because the standard has been lowered and half of what they should know has been erased or made voluntary.
Taking out the scholarship of premier Black scholars while also saying that current events are optional – events like the Black Lives Matter movement and the incidents after the murder of George Floyd – signals that these movements don’t matter, even though they have been the largest to date in this country. They’re not considered core or necessary; instead, they are voluntary or elective.
Q: For USC Price School students – public policy practitioners and scholars – can you explain the value of a comprehensive African American studies course? I imagine it would include examples of policies that have harmed Black communities?
A: Many people still don’t know about redlining, where lenders denied mortgages to mostly people of color in urban neighborhoods. We talk about the wealth gap without understanding that because of our policies, wealth accumulation has been denied to certain groups, including Black Americans. It perpetuates the belief that we live in an ‘everybody, just work hard and do your best’ society, which doesn’t acknowledge previous constraints on people of color and historical harm. We can’t even call it historical harm; it’s current harm that continues to show up in our policies and practices.
Another example is the GI Bill, which gave white soldiers an opportunity to go to college or participate in training programs but was largely denied to Black soldiers. And then there’s Social Security, where it was decided we could pass and implement this so long as we don’t give money to people that work in agriculture, or people who are domestic workers. In many policy conversations when the U.S. wanted to expand opportunities and access to resources, there were frequently these side deals where the policies would exclude people of color.
If you don’t have the origin story, then you can tell whatever story you want to in 2023. And that’s the most damning point.
Without knowing the history of these policies and how they intersected with race, you won’t understand why the status quo doesn’t work for everybody. African American studies and Black history provides insight into the cumulative impact of these decisions over time, as they work concurrently.
Q: Your research specifically is focused on cultural competency and health care needs. Can you provide examples of what you and other researchers who engage with African American communities have learned from Black history and scholarship?
A: An important example for those of us looking at disparate health outcomes can be found in the story of the ‘father of gynecology’ James Marion Sims, who tested his methodologies on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. He’s celebrated for his groundbreaking work, but the dehumanization of Black women that allowed for them to be used as experimental guinea pigs is rarely mentioned. The pain that they suffered without their consent and without compensation isn’t part of the narrative on his scientific breakthroughs.
Today we have higher levels of infant mortality and maternal death among Black women with advanced degrees than white women that drop out of high school. It’s in part because of a history that devalued Black bodies, which led providers to falsely believe Black people and particularly Black women have a higher tolerance for pain. A consequence is their pain is not taken seriously when they deliver their babies. Even tennis star Serena Williams, with her fame and resources, has spoken out about how she wasn’t taken seriously when she said that there was a problem with her baby’s delivery.
To share another example: Screening guidelines for certain health concerns, along with other types of preventive care, were developed using the experiences and outcomes of middle-class whites. Because health problems in Black people and other people of color may show up sooner, we may miss opportunities to catch things earlier. The guidelines weren’t developed with us in mind.
Q: Why is it important to acknowledge racial inequities in public policy?
A: If you follow what’s happened since the implementation of those policies, you can see disparities that arise as a result. But if you have a mindset that says everybody has an equal opportunity, without acknowledging the history of inequity, you will end up blaming the victim, and you will always be underperforming in your understanding of what needs to be done to address these persistent inequities.
We are positioning ourselves, with an expected Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action among other decisions, to soon have more of what people believe are ‘colorblind’ policies. If we say that race doesn’t matter anymore, then we’ll ignore those systematic advantages or privileges and assume that we have a level playing field.
But our history, including very recent history, shows us that the assumption of a color-blind society is built on a faulty premise; it is part of our country’s DNA and shouldn’t be dismissed so lightly.