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AP African American studies adds lesson on sports and racial justice

Colin Kaepernick kneeled for the national anthem before a game in Santa Clara, Calif., in 2016. The latest version of the AP African American studies course says students should learn about Kaepernick and his decision to kneel during the national anthem as a protest against racial oppression and police brutality.Ezra Shaw/Photographer: Ezra Shaw/Getty Im

The latest version of a groundbreaking African American studies course for the nation’s high schools says students should learn about professional football quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his decision in 2016 to kneel during the national anthem as a protest against racial oppression and police brutality.

The Advanced Placement course plan released Wednesday makes that addition, alongside many others, and restores some terms and concepts — including the adjective “systemic” — that previously had been expunged or minimized in part because they were deemed too controversial. These developments spotlight anew the high stakes and deep political overtones of a course that is now in a trial phase and scheduled for nationwide launch next fall.

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“This is the course I wish I had in high school,” Brandi Waters, the lead author of the plan for the College Board, said in a statement. “I hope every interested student has the opportunity to take it.”

The evolving plan for AP African American studies has drawn intense scrutiny over the past year as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is a Republican presidential candidate, and others assailed elements of its presentation of history, culture, and race. Civil rights advocates complained that the College Board, which oversees AP and the SAT admissions exam, had watered down the course in February in response to conservative pressure.

The College Board conceded missteps in April and pledged to revise the course plan. Changes will take effect next fall.

Now, the plan again includes a prominent reference to the scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw and her pioneering work on “intersectionality,” a term that helps explain overlapping experiences of discrimination affecting Black women and others. Crenshaw is also known as an architect of critical race theory. That academic concept — not mentioned in the revised course plan — in recent years has become a target of conservative outrage. Previously, Crenshaw’s name had been omitted from the course plan and “intersectionality” relegated to a single mention.

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Back, too, is “systemic.” Civil rights advocates and scholars frequently use the word to describe racism and other forms of discrimination embedded in society for generations. Some conservative politicians and commentators contend the term is overused or misused.

“Systemic” appeared nine times in an April 2022 draft of the AP course plan and remained in working documents as recently as a year ago. It vanished entirely in the February plan.

It appears at least twice in the latest one. Once, the document says students should learn about African American efforts to combat effects of “systemic marginalization locally and abroad.” Then, it highlights “systemic oppression, harassment,” and other troubles that Black people with disabilities have endured.

“We are relying on the terms that are most common in current scholarship in the field,” Waters said in an interview.

The course is the latest to join the AP program, which spans subjects from art history to physics and offers tests that enable students to qualify for college credit. The course was piloted in about 60 schools during the last school year. Now nearly 700 schools are trying it out in 40 states. Next spring thousands of students in those schools will be able to take an AP test in African American studies. In 2024-25, the course and test are scheduled to be more widely available.

How many schools will offer the course is unknown. In January, Florida rejected an earlier draft of the course plan on the argument that it “lacks educational value.” DeSantis accused the course architects of promoting “a political agenda.” His tussle with the College Board prompted an uproar in Florida and beyond.

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The revised course plan, a 294-page document, was developed by college faculty, high school teachers, and other experts. Overall, it resembles what was previously released: a sequence of lessons that start with the origins of the African diaspora and move through enslavement, resistance, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and beyond.

“It is a course made possible by hundreds of African American studies scholars, and it takes seriously the longstanding Black intellectual tradition and, importantly, the diversity of thinking within that tradition,” Jarvis R. Givens, a professor of education and African and African American studies at Harvard University, said in a statement.

Colin Powell, the first Black secretary of state, continues to be named in the course plan. So does former president Barack Obama, the first African American to hold the nation’s top office.

The course carves out three weeks at the end of the school year for students to research a topic of their choosing, a writing project that counts for 10 percent of the AP exam score.

The new course plan also adds a week of lessons for “further explorations” on a topic the teacher can choose. Among suggestions listed are the reparations debate; incarceration and abolition; and “Black foodways and culinary traditions.”

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The revisions do not explicitly require study of contemporary topics such as the reparations debate and the Black Lives Matter movement. That may disappoint activists and scholars who believe those are essential subjects for an introductory course.

But several additions were made to required topics. A lesson on White supremacist violence in the early 20th century was given two days, instead of one, with expanded attention on the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. A day was added for the study of Black life in theater, television, and film, and another was added on African Americans in sports.