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What Politics Kept In and Took Out of the AP Course

A politically charged adjective popped up repeatedly in the evolving plans for a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies. It was “systemic.”

The February 2022 version declared that students should learn how African American communities combat effects of “systemic marginalization.” An April update paired “systemic” with discrimination, oppression, inequality, disempowerment and racism. A December version said it was essential to know links between Black Panther activism and “systemic inequality that disproportionately affected African Americans.”

Then the word vanished. “Systemic,” a crucial term for many scholars and civil rights advocates, appears nowhere in the official version released Feb. 1. This late deletion and others reflect the extraordinary political friction that often shadows efforts in the nation’s schools to teach about history, culture and race.

The College Board, which oversees the AP program, denies that it diluted the African American studies course in response to complaints from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) or his allies. But a senior College Board official now acknowledges the organization was mindful of how “systemic” and certain other words in the modern lexicon of race in America would receive intense scrutiny in some places.

“All of those terms were going to be challenging,” said Jason Manoharan, vice president for AP program development. He said the College Board worried some phrases and concepts had been “co-opted for a variety of purposes” and were being used as “political instruments.” So the organization took a cautious approach to the final edits even as it sought to preserve robust content on historical and cultural impacts of slavery and racial discrimination.

“We wanted this course to be adopted by 50 states, and we wanted as many students and teachers as possible to be able to experience it,” Manoharan said. His acknowledgment underscored the inherent politics behind promoting a course that deals so squarely with race in America.

Documents and interviews with several people involved in the course’s creation, including university professors in the field, show the process was both routine and fraught. While Florida, a major state, raised objections behind the scenes, there is scant evidence tying its complaints to specific changes in the course.

Course developers had long discussions on how many weeks should be devoted to origins of the African diaspora and a student research paper on an elective topic — a back-and-forth typical for academia. Those decisions squeezed time allotted to contemporary issues. But the tense political atmosphere guaranteed the winnowing of lessons on topics such as reparations and movements for Black lives would be second-guessed even if experts deemed it necessary for pacing of the course.

John K. Thornton, a professor of African American studies and history at Boston University, who contributed to the planning, said he was pleased the course opens with five weeks on early Africa. But he lamented that reparations and Black Lives Matter ended up only as optional research topics. “It did upset me a little bit,” he said. “Those things obviously feel very much a part of what a college course is about.”