Did Ron DeSantis Really Just Change the A.P. African American Studies Curriculum?
The College Board says these changes were already in the works. But even if that's true, they may have just opened a new front in the culture wars.
The College Board has revised its curriculum for an Advanced Placement (A.P.) course it's piloting in African American Studies, the company announced Wednesday. Controversial contemporary topics like the Black Lives Matter movement, intersectionality, and queer theory were scaled down or removed entirely, and "black conservatism" has been added as a research project idea.
These edits aren't the result of right-wing uproar spearheaded by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), the College Board insists—and the timeline lends credence to the company's denial. It's been just three weeks since the DeSantis administration complained about the curriculum and about two since the complaint became public. That's a rapid pace for a revision that College Board chief David Coleman says is actually the long-planned result of a semester of testing the class in select schools.
In the political realm, however, I'm not sure the truth of the curriculum decision will matter much. DeSantis has made educational culture-warring a central fixture of his national political profile. He'll undoubtedly take credit for the A.P. course revision, and his supporters and less reasonable critics will grant it. ("Ron DeSantis wants to erase black history," says the headline of a New York Times guest essay.) Whatever the reality, the political lesson will be that the right can use the left's activist tactics to browbeat companies into political submission—and win.
As exemplars of that trend go, this case is an odd one. First there's that ideological inversion: The politics are swapped from the pattern of recent years, in which progressive activists pressure companies into issuing mea culpas for their political sins. This isn't the only time right-wing activists have tried to execute this strategy (remember the Keurig smashing of 2017?), but I can't recall a similarly big, quick, and decisive victory for the right. Now blood is in the water, and sharks of all kinds will be circling for more.
The DeSantis vs. the College Board narrative is also unusual in its messy interplay of public and private elements, as well as the direct connection between politics and product. This isn't the same as, say, a CEO of a clothing company making an unpopular political donation while off the clock. And the DeSantis administration's objection isn't simple consumer advocacy, nor is it pure policymaking or obviously illegitimate state meddling in the private sphere.
The College Board is a private company, but it's making curricula for use in public schools, and—though this is complicated by the fact that Florida won't be the only state where the course is taught, as well as the uncertainty around whether the DeSantis complaint had any real effect at all—it's hardly fair to say a governor (and one with a pretty solid electoral mandate) has no right to weigh in on curricula for the state-run schools of his own state. DeSantis might be wrong here, and he's certainly not letting any scrap of national publicity go to waste. But this is squarely within his job description.
And yet it's impossible to see the curriculum critique as DeSantis just doing his job. It's part of a larger cultural shift in what we demand from companies regarding politics and how we exact the political concessions we desire.
The core tactic here isn't the same as a classic boycott, which is about separation, ostracism, and refusal to participate. In a boycott, you stop doing business with a company you dislike. You leave. You might make a statement about why you're leaving, if your boycott is organized, and you might eventually return if the company changes its ways. But the primary action is the exit.
In the 1990s, for example, my family never shopped at Kmart as part of an organized boycott over its ownership of Waldenbooks, whose stores sold Playboy. "Waldenbooks can sell anything they want to sell. But if they elect to carry pornography, we elect not to do business with them," said the boycott organizer. "We also elect to encourage people not to trade with them, through mailings and other means. We have a constitutional right to do that."
With this new approach, though, there is no exit. The whole thing is you don't leave. You stay, and you demand, demand, demand until you get the capitulation you want.
It's a sort of asymmetric warfare made possible by the internet and especially social media, which has dramatically lowered the cost of doggedly and, crucially, publicly contacting the company in question. You can badger for weeks on end without ever leaving your home to travel to their store, office, or factory (or at least the post office). Some companies have withstood the barrage, generally by ignoring it entirely until activists wear themselves out and move on to the next thing while the mostly oblivious public maintains its usual purchasing habits. But many companies panic and cave, as the College Board is alleged to have done here.
And that decision—or, rather, the political story being told about it—feels like a landmark moment in the rise of the no-exit boycott. It's not a clearcut moment, as it's neither a straightforward case of market-delivered pressure nor the kind of government meddling that would raise serious civil liberties and constitutional concerns. Yet it will be widely received as a high-profile success for the activism of making everything your business in an obnoxious way, an activity that knows no political bounds.