By Sunita Sohrabji, Ethnic Media Services
Controversy swirls around the K-12 school curriculum in Florida where, under pressure from Gov. Ron DeSantis, the College Board released a new, stripped-down version of an AP African American studies course. The move comes as state lawmakers consider implementing an Asian American studies program statewide.
Civil rights advocates describe the move as a “blatant attempt to divide communities of color” in the state.
They are “weaponizing the use of race,” said John C. Yang, President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). “This is whitewashing history. It is not a proper understanding of history.”
Bowing to DeSantis’ objections, the College Board Feb. 1 released a new, stripped-down version, taking out references to the Black Lives Matter movement, Black writers who also happened to be gay, the Black feminist movement, the quest for reparations, and Black queer history, among other subject matters.
“What’s one of the lessons about? Queer theory. Now who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory? That is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids,” said DeSantis at a speech he gave in Florida last month.
At around the same time, members of the Florida state House of Representatives introduced a bill Jan. 19 — HB 287 — that would mandate the teaching of Asian American studies at all of the state’s public schools. A similar bill — SB 294 — was introduced in the Florida state Senate. Both bills have broad bi-partisan support, and if passed, would go into effect on July 1 of this year.
“I just want us to recognize Asian American culture and teach the young people about that culture,” said Democratic State Sen. Linda Stewart in a press statement. “If they learn about it, then they are less likely to go on the street and beat ‘em up because that’s what they are doing. They are shooting them and beating them up,” she said, referring to the spike in anti-Asian American hate crimes and incidents.
‘Stop WOKE Law’
But Yang says it’s critical that the histories of all communities are taught for a fuller picture of the American experience. “We want a full telling of history,” he said. “All communities of color must work together to ensure that all of our histories, including their complexities, are taught. All of our histories are relevant.”
DeSantis is widely expected to make a run for the White House in 2024. Like many Yang suspects this latest clash in the nation’s culture wars is part of efforts to shore up his base ahead of a presidential bid.
The long-time Asian American advocate noted that similar battles were being fought in other states over the teaching of Black history. For example, in December 2021, the Texas State Legislature passed a “Critical Race Theory” bill which bans public school teachers from discussing race in their classrooms. Florida has its “Stop WOKE” law with a similar mandate.
Asian American actor and community advocate Maulik Pancholy agrees with Yang.
Best known for his work on the television series 30 Rock, Weeds, and his voiceovers on the cartoons Sanjay and Craig, and Phineas and Ferb, Pancholy also served in President Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which is part of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“The idea that we’re going to selectively choose the things that we think are appropriate subjective to a certain politician’s ideologies does not sit well with me,” he told Ethnic Media Services. “Education is a way to eradicate hate. When we know each other’s stories, when we see each other in people’s histories, when we see each other’s art, it’s a way of bridging gaps.”
“And so, to say we’re going to remove a culture, whether it’s a racial culture, an identity culture, an orientation culture – that we’re going to remove these from schools, it’s going to lead to divisiveness and hatred. And in a way, I think that’s exactly what they want,” said Pancholy, who founded Act to Change to combat school bullying.
“They want to keep our education limited to one story. And it’s not the full story. It’s a story that excludes people and marginalizes people and demonizes people. And that’s a problem.”
The actor faced the issue first-hand when his young adult novel, The Best At It, was banned from Florida and Texas classrooms for its portrayal of an Indian boy coming to terms with his homosexuality. Pancholy’s new book, Nikhil Out Loud also has a gay protagonist.
In a Jan. 31 op-ed for The New York Times, Janai Nelson, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund wrote that DeSantis was trying to erase Black history.
“Florida is at the forefront of a nationwide campaign to silence Black voices and erase the full and accurate history and contemporary experiences of Black people,” she stated, noting that several civil rights organizations have filed lawsuits challenging the “Stop Woke” law.
“Florida’s rejection of the AP course and Mr. DeSantis’s demand to excise specific subject areas from the curriculum,” Nelson continued, “stand in stark opposition to the state-issued mandate that all students be taught the history of African Americans, including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition and the contributions of African Americans to society.”
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