During Black History Month, Black history is under attack, Northeastern experts say

Headshot of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition on Nov. 19, 2022, in Las Vegas. DeSantis reiterated Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, that the state’s rejection of a proposed nationwide advanced African American studies course, saying it pushes a political agenda — something three authors cited in the state’s criticism accused him of doing in return. AP Photo/John Locher, File

The showdown between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and the College Board, the nationwide testing organization, is the most recent and prominent battle being fought over education, Black history and race in the U.S.

Over the last three years, 18 states have adopted laws restricting what teachers can say about race and the U.S. history of race relations, according to The Washington Post. Classrooms have become the front lines of the “culture wars” being waged between liberals and conservatives in the U.S., and critical race theory––and race more generally––are at the center of the battlefield. Critical race theory is a framework for understanding race in America, focused on the idea that in the U.S., racism is a systemic issue that impacts every aspect of society. 

Northeastern University experts say the push to silence or minimize Black history and to misrepresent ideas like CRT presents a seismic threat not only to education but to youth development and race relations in America.

“It’s disinformation, and when you’ve got disinformation that maligns the values, history and experiences of entire racial groups under the guise of something else, that’s a nightmare for inter-group relations,” says Adrianna Crossing, assistant professor of applied psychology and health sciences at Northeastern University. “There are all these little ways where trust and empathy between groups isn’t getting its best chance to thrive if we’re depriving students of racially realistic education.”

When the College Board announced last year that it would be providing the first Advanced Placement course in African American studies for high school students, it was a major acknowledgement that Black history had a place in the classroom. 

Early drafts of the syllabus from 2022 covered everything from slavery and Jim Crow to the Black Lives Matter and reparations movements, as well as Black queer studies and intersectionality. Over the course of development, many of the topics and people at the center of the course fell by the wayside––and that was before DeSantis got involved.

In January 2023, DeSantis, who has vocally opposed CRT and diversity initiatives, threatened to ban the AP course, claiming it went against a Florida state law that banned CRT in schools. The College Board further stripped back the course, taking out work from figures like Angela Davis, but has since denounced what it claims was a misinformation campaign on the part of the Florida Department of Education and DeSantis.

Watching the AP course get whittled away, was an exercise in seeing how efforts to minimize Black history can warp broader perceptions around Black people, Crossing says.

“Those are not radical thinkers corrupting your children––they are Black history,” Crossing says. “To remove them from the course or to ban the teaching of their thoughts is to suppress and oppress Blackness, Black identity, Black joy, Black success, Black liberation.”

At the core of the issue is CRT––or a deliberately distorted version of CRT, says Ashley Adams, acting director of public policy at Mills College at Northeastern.

“Critical race theory is often misunderstood as being an attack against white people for being oppressors and classifying all Black people as being oppressed,” Adams says. “It’s not an attack on white people as individuals. It’s a discussion about racism and a system of racism.”

Crossing says the end result of the work being done by conservative politicians like DeSantis or activists, like Christopher Rufo, is fear fueled by disinformation, which can turn into anger. For Crossing, who leads inter-group dialogue sessions, it’s the fastest way to destroy any attempts at building empathy and trust between different racial groups.

“It’s disinformation, and when you’ve got disinformation that maligns the values, history and experiences of entire racial groups under the guise of something else, that’s a nightmare for inter-group relations,” Crossing says. “There are all these little ways where trust and empathy between groups isn’t getting its best chance to thrive if we’re depriving students of racially realistic education.”

Crossing also has concerns about how disinformation and efforts to minimize Black history education will impact children and their development. 

In an increasingly segregated education system, students are less likely to interact with children outside their own racial or ethnic group. Disinformation and restrictions on Black history education further complicate a vital part of youth development called racial socialization, Crossing says.

“Almost all Black families and the majority of families of color engage in these intentional racial socialization processes, but white families do it too,” she says. “If you’re teaching white children, white teenagers, white youth that singing the Black National Anthem at the Super Bowl … is somehow this bad, ‘woke’ thing, that’s not an accurate representation of what that song means to us as Black people. Then [there are] all of the implications of saying that to a child and how it changes the way they think about their race and how their privilege or oppression might relate to someone else.”

Even when Black history is overlooked, minimized or silenced, Kabria Baumgartner, dean’s associate professor of history and Africana studies at Northeastern, says the long tendrils of history are inescapable. Tyre Nichols’ death at the hands of five Memphis police officers is a specific incident that occurs within the historical context of police brutality in the U.S. Without that context, it’s much easier to dismiss the magnitude of the problem, Baumgartner says.

“We need that history to inform the present moment and that experience,” Baumgartner says. “We need to talk about white supremacy, we need to talk about anti-Blackness, we need to talk about police power. … If we don’t teach history, that’s the part we miss.”

Without healthy discourse and a fuller understanding of Black history, it becomes even more challenging to overcome the systemic inequities that the U.S. still faces, says Tristan Thomas, a senior politics, philosophy and economics student at Northeastern.

“When you look at economic disparity or the criminal justice system or these different areas of social and political life where there are severe disparities and inequities and problems, the question is, how do we solve them?” Thomas says. “In order to solve something, you have to understand how it started, how it came to be and how it works.”

In her classes, Baumgartner has her students read “Never Caught,” which tells the story of Ona Judge, who was enslaved by George and Martha Washington. For some of her students, it’s the first time they are confronted with the idea that the first U.S. president circumscribed the laws that he had signed to recapture Judge. It complicates the American narrative they may have been taught. But confronting those contradictions is an essential part of having a more complete picture of America’s complicated past and present––and a potential step toward healing.

“That is a history that sometimes in the United States we try to wash away, we try to smooth over, but there’s no smoothing it over,” Baumgartner says. “These are the contradictions at the heart of the nation, and we can see that in the late 18th century, all the way up to the present. If we [taught] more of that, we might be further along, especially in terms of race relations.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.mello-klein@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.