All the ways the new AP US history standards gloss over the country’s racist past

The 2015 AP US history standards will lessen understanding, increase divisiveness.
The 2015 AP US history standards will lessen understanding, increase divisiveness.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
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The College Board, the non-profit company that designs Advanced Placement tests for US high schools, has announced new standards for its AP US history curriculum. The revisions are “clearer and more historically precise, and less open to misinterpretation or perceptions of imbalance,” according to a statement released July 30.

These standards are guidelines by which AP US history teachers are to craft their lesson plans. The ultimate goal is to prepare students to take the AP US history examination at the end of the year. High exam scores may count toward college credit, saving university-bound students some money and time (AP credits may also be used to fulfill general education requirements at some institutions).

The revisions come after the 2014 standards were vocally criticized by conservatives for being “anti-American” and focusing too forcefully on “divisive” topics, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the Trail of Tears. The Republican National Committee complained that the 2014 standards reflected “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” State legislatures in Texas, Georgia, and Oklahoma all introduced bills to eliminate the course from public high schools.

In the face of criticism, the College Board blinked—and future generations of US high school students will pay the price.

The revised AP curriculum significantly tones down language (and even mentions) of racial tension throughout US history. To illustrate, page 35 of the 2014 standards reads:

“Many Europeans developed a belief in white superiority to justify their subjugation of Africans and American Indians, using several different rationales.”

This statement has been removed from the 2015 standards, and replaced with the softer (hardly more “historically precise”) idea that interracial interaction in the colonial and antebellum years spurred “evolving religious, cultural, and racial justifications for [their] subjugation.”

The 2014 standards were also more straightforward in describing the role of white Europeans in the near-extermination of Native peoples:

“By supplying American Indian allies with deadlier weapons and alcohol, and by rewarding Indian military actions, Europeans helped increase the intensity and destructiveness of American Indian warfare.”

The new and supposedly improved 2015 standards get rid of this context, noting simply:

“The introduction of guns, other weapons, and alcohol stimulated cultural and demographic changes in some Native American societies.”

And the hits keep coming. Regarding the basis of American slavery, the 2014 standards read:

“Reinforced by a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority, the British system enslaved black people in perpetuity, altered African gender and kinship relationships in the colonies and was one factor that led the British colonists into violent confrontations with native peoples.”

The 2015 standards have been revised to read:

“As chattel slavery became the dominant labor system in many southern colonies, new laws created a strict racial system that prohibited interracial relationships and defined the descendants of African American mothers as black and enslaved in perpetuity.”

This is an especially dangerous amendment, as it suggests that white supremacy didn’t inspire the slave economy, but was rather a byproduct of economic necessity at the time. It is, in essence, a very fancy way of saying slaveholding was practical and justifiable in the centuries it was practiced, and that the decades of anti-miscegenation laws and postbellum structural discrimination were merely byproducts of that economic necessity.

(And, in case the mere mention of such unsavory topics as “slavery” is too bruising to the fragile psyches of American students, the 2015 standards stress the relationship between “national identity” and “American exceptionalism,” technically defined as the idea that the United States is inherently different from all other nations, but frequently invoked to express the idea of innate American superiority.)

At a time when our racialized history is particularly visible, stunting students with warped, sugar-coated notions of social and political history will only foster more divisiveness. Affluent, whiter schools tend to have a wider array of AP coursework than others. Indoctrinating these students with inaccurate portrayals of a historiographically flawless United States will cement an already extant unwillingness to understand or identify with groups that are still dealing with the reverberations of systemic disenfranchisement today.

Get excited for the inevitable 2016 revisions, where slavery will be referred to as “involuntary labor,” Native Americans will be called “pre-Americans,” and casus belli for the Civil War will be diluted down to a simple dispute on the true height of Lincoln’s top hat.