Fear, Florida, and The 1619 Project
BRITTANY LUSE, HOST:
Hey, hey. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. The war over history is raging in our schools. And one of the fiercest battles can be found in the classroom. Last month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that his state would block a new AP African American Studies class. It was developed by the College Board, and early versions of the course included lessons on social movements, Black Lives Matter, intersectionality, reparations, prison abolition, and more, which to DeSantis sounded a lot like indoctrination.
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RON DESANTIS: When you look to see they have stuff about intersectionality, abolishing prisons - that's a political agenda.
LUSE: Since he's declared himself the education governor, DeSantis has been on a mission to ban schools from teaching anything that would make people feel, quote, "guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress because of their race, gender, sex or national origin." And of course, if we're touching on slavery, white guilt might be on the table.
GIULIA HEYWARD, BYLINE: Because it's making white students, white parents, white people in general feel responsible for something that none of them were alive for, in essence.
LUSE: That's Giulia Heyward, an NPR reporter who has been covering this story.
HEYWARD: It's really about how we as a country contend with some of the uglier parts of our past. Is it something that we shy away from and choose not to discuss in classrooms or that we only discuss with a specific age group? Or is it something that we embrace, and we have those uncomfortable conversations? We as a nation are still trying to figure out how we contend with something as contentious as race and our history with it.
LUSE: Today on the show, we're taking you to school. First, we'll find out what happens if this AP course lands in detention. Then we'll get a lesson from two of the contributors to one of the most hotly debated Black historical works in the country, The 1619 Project. Giulia Heyward, welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. Thank you so much for joining me.
HEYWARD: Thanks for having me.
LUSE: Can you summarize what's been going on with this battle over AP African American Studies?
HEYWARD: Yeah, for sure. In August, roughly 60 schools introduced a pilot course. This would be an AP African American Studies course, which high schoolers would be able to take for college credit. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, as well as other education officials, are opposed to the course because they feel as if it teaches a woke indoctrination to students. Florida education officials decided to ban the course, saying that they will not let AP African American Studies be taught in high schools in Florida.
LUSE: Right. And the course was changed. And, you know, some are alleging that the College Board may have sanitized the curriculum after communicating with Florida's Department of Education, which the College Board denies. But, you know, now some people say the course is watered down. So it seems everyone's unhappy - both the people who wanted these classes and the ones who hated them.
HEYWARD: Yeah, I think - really, I think that there's a really good question here, which is just can a group of educators design a course over something as contentious as race without taking into account how it's being perceived in society? Now that we have this course, I mean, it's not just Florida that that's a concern, right? There are other states, such as Arkansas, North Dakota, Mississippi, Virginia - other states where education officials say that they need to exam the class to make sure that it doesn't violate their state law because these are states that have also introduced legislation that limits how race is talked about in the classroom.
LUSE: How and when we talk to kids in an educational setting about race has been such a huge topic of political conversation over the past, like, three to five years in a way that I hadn't seen it previously. But students now are taking this issue and some of these matters into their own hands.
HEYWARD: Yeah. There are three high schoolers in Florida who are basically arguing that DeSantis and other Florida education officials are getting in the way of their education.
LUSE: Here's one of the students, Juliette Heckman.
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JULIETTE HECKMAN: I mean, we're the generation that is working to uproot all these systemic issues within our society. And, you know, they're uncomfortable topics. We - no one likes talking about those sort of things, but they're necessary to understand how we are today and why things have led to where we are.
HEYWARD: These three students are poised to be the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit that is being filed along with civil rights attorney Ben Crump. And we all know his name well.
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BEN CRUMP: We're here to give notice to Governor DeSantis that you have a right to have your culture, your history respected and taught to the children of America.
HEYWARD: He and a few other attorneys are going to be helping these high schoolers file a lawsuit that says that they're missing out on an education opportunity because this class is being banned in their state.
LUSE: Even in a grander sense, what's happening with the College Board is just a part of a bigger pushback in Florida against what DeSantis and other conservatives call, quote-unquote, "woke ideology." What else has he done as part of this effort?
HEYWARD: Oh, my gosh. OK. Two that really stick out for people - there is the Parental Rights in Education Act. It's been colloquially termed the Don't Say Gay bill. And that pretty much just prohibits discussion around gender and sexuality for certain elementary school grades. There's also the Stop WOKE Act, and that limits how race is talked about in the classroom and also equips parents with the legal right to sue teachers and sometimes school districts if the parents feel as if race is being taught in a specific way in the classroom that violates state law - you know, if conversations around race are getting to a point where it isn't appropriate anymore for their kids to learn or listen about.
LUSE: What is the line of what's appropriate? Like, what - how do we conceive of these things? What's the line? Like, where - or where's the line?
HEYWARD: I mean, you can't really create this sort of standard way to discuss race with anyone, let alone with a classroom of 20 to 30, sometimes more students who all come from different backgrounds and different experiences of racism.
LUSE: You know (laughter), a lot of the measures that you're discussing, they seem to be taking resources away from students. And yet Ron DeSantis is known as the, quote, "education governor" in conservative circles. How does that work?
HEYWARD: Ooh, that is such a good question. I mean, regardless of how you feel about critical race theory or how race is talked about in classrooms, is that people who oppose it and people who are for it are both operating under the same premise of we need what's best for our kids. We need what's best for our students. But I think we as people kind of disagree on what that should look like. And so in limiting what students can learn about or discuss in classrooms, I think that there are a lot of specifically Republican supporters of DeSantis who think that he's making schools safer and more appropriate for their students. You'll also hear people say that the best way to contend with American history is to have those uncomfortable conversations, is to acknowledge the painfulness of our history.
LUSE: What does the Florida governor have to gain by going to battle against the College Board in this way?
HEYWARD: Well, I'm sure we are all aware that next year is an election year. By making all these bold changes and statements and measures about education, which, again, is a topic that almost every American feels some type of way about, he's basically poising himself for a promising run for the presidential election next year.
LUSE: So if Florida bans these classes and essentially cuts ties with the College Board, what could be the impact for other states?
HEYWARD: Officials in Arkansas, Virginia, Mississippi, North Dakota have already said that they're going to review the AP African American Studies course before they decide whether or not it can be taught in high schools in those states. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw other states follow suit. We're also seeing other states - such as New Jersey, where its governor said that it's expanding the AP African American Studies class from being taught in one high school as it was this year to more than 20 next year. Because this class has become so political, what it's doing is it's giving high schoolers, many of whom aren't old enough to vote, these restrictions on their education based off of what state they may live in. This could have huge impacts on education, and it could have huge impacts on students who haven't even gone to high school yet.
LUSE: It's going to be really interesting to see how this all plays out. A lot hangs in the balance.
HEYWARD: Yes, absolutely.
LUSE: Well, Giulia, thank you so much for joining me today and for keeping all of us abreast of what's going on with this really far-reaching and somewhat bizarre story. Thank you.
HEYWARD: Of course. Thank you so much for having me.
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LUSE: That was NPR reporter Giulia Heyward. Coming up, The 1619 Project was banned from being taught in Florida under the Stop W.O.K.E. Act. So we talked to two scholars who worked on it about the history DeSantis wants to hide.
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LUSE: Just a warning - we talk about violence and sexual assault in this segment.
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LUSE: What's going on in Florida is just the latest in a long debate over U.S. history - how it's told and who gets to tell it. And one of the biggest things to shake up that debate in recent years is The 1619 Project.
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DONALD TRUMP: Critical Race Theory, The 1619 Project and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And saying we need to really understand the legacy of slavery in a more robust...
CONNOR BOYACK: Many of these people are Marxists. They want to undermine the classical...
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: No matter how you feel about it, a free society doesn't ban books. A free society does not do that.
LUSE: If you somehow haven't heard, here's the TL;DR. The project was started as a themed magazine issue by New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones back in 2019 to commemorate 400 years since the first ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived on what is now American soil. The project's goal is to reframe U.S. history by focusing on the legacy of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. The 1619 Project is now a podcast, a book and, as of this year, a documentary series on Hulu.
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HANNAH-JONES: Black Americans' contributions are undeniable. No people had a greater claim to the American flag than we do.
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THE HARLEM GOSPEL TRAVELERS: (Singing) Fight on.
LUSE: Despite its success, the project has faced a lot of opposition from folks like Gov. DeSantis, who say this focus on slavery is nothing more than revisionist propaganda. So today, I'm talking to two scholars who contributed to the book version of The 1619 Project. They make the case that slavery led to some of our biggest political fissures today.
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LUSE: One of my guests is Dorothy Roberts, a legal scholar and sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who says failures in reproductive policy are rooted in laws meant to protect slave owners.
DOROTHY ROBERTS: Nikole Hannah-Jones came to me with the idea of bringing in some of my work on how race is an invented, mythical category. But she was also interested in my work on the regulation of Black women's sexuality and childbearing, showing how they work together to bring us to the state we're at today.
LUSE: My other guest is Leslie Alexander, a historian at Rutgers University. She looks at the connection between a slave revolt in the 1700s and modern American policing.
LESLIE ALEXANDER: Nikole actually originally had reached out to my sister, Michelle Alexander, who works on issues of mass incarceration. And Nikole was really interested in having a chapter that looked at practices of policing, the evolution of the police state. But she was also interested in the long history of policing in Black communities. So Michelle said, well, I'm not sure I'm the best person to write on that, but I actually know someone who is.
ALEXANDER: In a strange way, it was actually just a continuation of conversations that we've had at Thanksgiving, (laughter) you know?
ALEXANDER: But it's the first time that she and I sat down and actually wrote something together.
LUSE: At first glance, Dorothy and Leslie's essays on race and fear, respectively, seem to focus on different things, but as I read along, it became increasingly clear that the two concepts fed off each other throughout American history. We'll get there, but I want to start with Dorothy's ideas about the connection between race and reproductive control over Black women. It all started in 1662.
ROBERTS: What kind of holds together the invention of race and the regulation of Black women's childbearing is a law that was passed by Virginia, the Virginia Colonial Assembly, that had to answer the question - what is the status of the children born to Black women who are fathered by white men, of course, fathered through sexual assault? And they could have had the status of their fathers...
LUSE: That's how that worked - right? - back in England previous, with the patrilineal...
ROBERTS: Absolutely. In a patriarchal society, children would have the status of their fathers, but they changed it to the rule that would apply to animals, that the status of a piglet, for example, is that of the mother and is owned by the person who owns the mother. That allowed for white enslavers to profit from their sexual assaults of Black women, but it also meant that Black women were deemed to give birth to enslavable children. And that idea not only is the foundation of the invention of race in America, but also the beginning of this idea that Black women's childbearing is dangerous, and our sexuality has to be policed.
LUSE: Leslie, I see you nodding vigorously (laughter) throughout Dorothy's response.
ALEXANDER: Yes. I mean, it's a reminder that what we witness in the contemporary moment is part of a legacy, and it's a legacy that's rooted in how the nation was built to support and defend the enslavement of human beings. And when you see a law like the one that Dorothy described, what has since been called the womb law - right? - when you see a law like that actually radically upend how British law was constructed up to that point - and it is done for the purpose of protecting the institution of slavery - tells a lot about how invested, again, from the early colonial period white folks were in defining and legalizing their right to decide what happens with Black people and their bodies.
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LUSE: Coming up, we dive into the connections between Dorothy and Leslie's two essays and hear the history that some are fighting to hide.
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LUSE: You know, Dorothy, something you said in your essay is that, to paraphrase, the way that race was developed, as we understand it in the United States at this point, it was very reliant on policing Black women's reproductive health, reproductive systems and their sexuality, and it changed forever how Black women's sexuality was viewed and is still viewed today. Tell us more about that.
ROBERTS: In order to exempt white men from any liability for raping enslaved women, the very notion of rape didn't apply to them, that Black women who were enslaved were the chattel property of white men, but also, it came from the idea that Black women were innately licentious, that they always wanted to have sex. So you combine these ideas of no legal right to consent or not to consent to anything...
ROBERTS: ...Plus the stereotype that Black women are innately unfit to care for their own children and passing on an unhealthy, antisocial set of behaviors and lifestyles to their children through their very bodies, through the very act of reproduction. And those ideas heavily influence social policy in America to today. Just for example, the welfare queen - that Black women had babies just to get a welfare check, and then they would spend the money on themselves and neglect their children. That stereotype, which circulated from Reagan into the Clinton administration, that was powerful enough to fuel the restructuring of welfare in America.
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BILL CLINTON: A long time ago, I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility and family.
ROBERTS: As Leslie said so powerfully, the law about the inheritance of children of an enslaved status from their mothers was a radical departure from British law. So was welfare restructuring a radical departure for the New Deal signed by Bill Clinton in 1996.
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CLINTON: Today, the Congress will vote on legislation that gives us a chance to transform a broken system to one that emphasizes work and independence.
ROBERTS: No longer was there any federal guarantee to income to support children. And this was driven by this false image of Black mothers. We could look at the idea that Black women trade sex for crack and then give birth to the so-called crack baby who was predicted to inevitably go on to become a criminal, a welfare cheat, be a burden on the school system, the health system, the welfare system. There were articles that made claims that crack deprived Black women of maternal instinct.
You know, this exact same stereotypes - we can look at prison policy, child welfare policy, the removal of Black children at astronomical rates from their families, promoted by this idea that Black mothers don't really care about their children. I could point to just about every policy - social policy in the United States today that somehow, if not substantially has a link to the idea that Black women's childbearing and sexuality is a social problem that needs to be fixed, that needs to be policed, that should be the subject of punitive social policies, and then those policies get expanded to more people. But so many are rooted in these ideas that we can trace directly back to chattel slavery.
LUSE: You know, it sounds almost like when a societal failure shows up in Black people, it's pathologized. And then that becomes codified. And then there's another reason for policing. It makes me think about your essay, Leslie. You said that by the 1700s, there had been this longstanding fear that enslaved Black people would revolt against their white enslavers. But the successful Haitian uprising of 1791 turned that fear into a reality. What were white people saying back then about all this?
ALEXANDER: The Haitian Revolution has been described by scholars as an unthinkable moment, right? Because the Haitian Revolution is not just another slave revolt. There had been slave uprisings happening across the Americas, right? And they're saying, OK, you're saying you believe in liberty. You're saying you believe in equality and brotherhood. Well, it turns out we believe in those things for ourselves, too.
What makes the Haitian Revolution radical is that the revolt turns into a revolution. And so when you look at the very earliest responses by white folks on the ground, they're a little bit like, oh, dear, you know, there's sort of troubling news from across the ocean. It's not until this revolt proves itself unstoppable that it then becomes completely terrifying because in their minds, there is the potential that the Haitian Revolution and its success will create a domino effect.
LUSE: That will come to their front door.
ALEXANDER: Exactly. So what we now call Haiti - right? - the former French colony of San Domingue was hands-down the wealthiest colony in the Americas at that time. And there are copycat revolts across the Americas. You know, Martinique goes up in flames. Guadeloupe goes up in flames. Grenada goes up in flames. Jamaica, Antigua - right? - even in what was then Spanish Louisiana. So there is a fear that the Haitian Revolution will become an example of what Black sovereignty and equality could look like.
LUSE: So what actions did the white men who were in power in what we now call the United States at that time - what actions did they take in response to that?
ALEXANDER: Well, what we see, I think, first and foremost is a ramping up of policing. The slave patrols are put on alert. They're also surveilling and ramping up their monitoring of free Black communities as well, right? There's concern that alliances would emerge. And of course, in situations where conspiracies are actually revealed, then we see whole new waves of legislation limiting everything from freedom of movement, denying access to education, implementing new laws that monitor and surveil cultural activities, right?
So this is where we start to see drumming disallowed, musical celebrations. There's even laws passed saying that dancing is illegal - expressions or manifestations of Black joy, every time white folks perceive that they present a potential danger to the stability of the institution of slavery. Every single imaginable aspect of Black people's lives are policed, surveilled, monitored, and often criminalized.
LUSE: You know, that pattern that you're describing, Leslie, you make the argument doesn't just indicate that white people are fearful of Black rebellion. They're also fearful of Black success or Black progress. We see it after Reconstruction when we're seeing Black people start to participate in government. And the reaction to that is brutal and swift. And that pattern continues on, whether it's through Jim Crow, Black codes and into some of the laws that we see today. Why would white people be scared of Black progress?
ALEXANDER: This is a really complicated question, but I think it's a really important one. I think white people believe that they have a lot more to lose than they actually do. But I think their fear is that they lose control. Like, if white supremacy fully collapses and we actually create a full equal and just society, it doesn't allow for the possibility of an elite who gets to win everything and a group of people at the bottom who are catching hell - right? - that if we allow racism to die the death it deserves, it also means that white elites have to then reckon with how poor white people have been and are treated - right? - in contemporary society.
Like, one of the ways, historically, that white elites have been able to kind of keep poor white people in check is to basically tell poor white people it doesn't matter how poor you are, doesn't matter how much the policies that we've created cause you to suffer and struggle; at least you're not Black. But if you remove racism, there's actually then going to have to be a reckoning. And so from the perspective of a white elite person, then the whole system gets upended. They then lose everything. But of course, from my perspective, what that means is that then everybody else gets to win.
LUSE: Right. So, OK, we've been talking about race and fear. In your minds, how are these two topics, as you've written about them, connected?
ROBERTS: Well, I can just pick up from what Leslie said, that part of the way in which the white elite is able to generate fear among white people who would actually benefit from a more equal society is to put the blame on Black women's childbearing as if it is the cause of problems, as if white taxpayers have to be afraid of Black women's childbearing because it's going to produce children who are violent, who are prone to poverty and, therefore, will take up some of their hard-earned resources. And so I see a connection between our two chapters and the way in which putting the blame for the nation's problems on Black women is a way of diverting attention away from the deep structural inequities based on race, gender, class, disability.
LUSE: You both have spent your careers dedicated to learning and teaching about these subjects, and now you're part of "The 1619 Project," you know, which has done so much work to educate the public and make this information accessible and widespread through a major magazine project, a podcast and now a documentary television series. And the documentary is coming out at a time when states like Florida are looking to adopt new state education standards that would turn away from this kind of historical teaching that we discussed today. What world comes from this teaching that they're so scared of?
ALEXANDER: Well, I think the world that comes from this type of thinking and this type of education is a generation of engaged, thoughtful, critical thinkers. And I think if you look at the language that is mobilized by conservative thinkers, it really tells us all we need to know. They are critical of wokeness, right? They are critical of the very concept of being awake. And they are terrified of a generation of Americans who are awake, who are thoughtful, who are engaged and who are informed about the true history and the contemporary reality of the society in which we live. What they would prefer is a generation and a society composed of people who are asleep and ignorant because people who are asleep, ignorant and ill-informed are much easier to control than people who are awake, informed, educated and critically engaged.
LUSE: Well, that is quite a button to put on a fantastic conversation. Leslie, Dorothy, thank you so much for joining me today. This was great.
ALEXANDER: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.
ROBERTS: Yes, thanks. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.
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LUSE: That was Dorothy Roberts, a legal scholar and sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Leslie Alexander, a historian at Rutgers University. They wrote the essays titled "Race" and "Fear," respectively, for the book "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story." The project is now a documentary series on Hulu. This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by...
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LUSE: All right. That's our show for today. I'm Brittany Luse. See you next week for another episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR.
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