Published July 11, 2023
In partnership with two of the most influential Marxists in America, Colin Kaepernick has just published a book intended as a refutation of Governor Ron DeSantis’s January 2023 decision to reject the College Board’s pilot program in AP African-American studies (APAAS). Kaepernick’s Our History Has Always Been Contraband: In Defense of Black Studies includes essays attacking how DeSantis, Trump, Christopher Rufo, I, and other conservatives treat U.S. history. The book also offers a collection of radical readings that Kaepernick would like the College Board to add to the APAAS curriculum — or would like to see students read on their own.
To address DeSantis’s concerns about politicization, the College Board initially removed or made optional radical readings that made up nearly the entire final quarter of the APAAS pilot. With DeSantis now a hard no on APAAS, the College Board looks ready to put back in the Marxism, queer theory, etc. And Kaepernick and his collaborators have plenty of ideas about how to do that. Supposedly, Kaepernick’s book and the readings it showcases demonstrate how wrong DeSantis was to reject a perfectly good black-studies course. In fact, Kaepernick’s thoroughly Marxist project shows that DeSantis was right to nix a course with such a one-sided and extremist agenda.
The core message of Our History Has Always Been Contraband is that “the entire American enterprise” is “illegitimate.” Given that, the purpose of black studies is to expose the “mythologies and lies that the United States has been built around.” “Black studies,” we are told, “honors a tradition of resistance and struggle” designed to “unravel” America’s “social order.” In building their book around this openly radical — even revolutionary — political agenda, Kaepernick and his collaborators are making DeSantis’s point.
The title of Kaepernick’s book, Our History Has Always Been Contraband: In Defense of Black Studies, is designed to portray DeSantis as opposed to the teaching of black history. This is demonstrably false. Florida’s Stop WOKE Act mandates the teaching of a series of topics in the history of black Americans, slavery and racism very much included. The issue is what specific sort of curriculum should be adopted.
Kaepernick and his Marxist collaborators insist that black studies can take only a radical left line. Since slavery was wrong and must be opposed, and since contemporary black life is (allegedly) characterized by oppression comparable to that of slavery, black studies cannot be a traditional academic discipline, we are told. On the contrary, it must advance what is in effect a revolutionary political agenda. None of this follows unless you accept the utterly jaundiced reading of contemporary America presented throughout Our History Has Always Been Contraband. But at least Kaepernick and his collaborators are tipping their hand.
In September 2022, I exposed what had until then been APAAS’s secret curriculum. I showed that the final quarter of the course was built around the neo-Marxism of UCLA professor of American history Robin D.G. Kelley. In early 2023, when DeSantis’s clash with the College Board was at high tide, I highlighted the radicalism of another key author assigned in the original APAAS curriculum, Northwestern University professor of African-American studies, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (who writes regularly for The New Yorker). Kelley and Taylor, two of the most influential Marxists in America, are Kaepernick’s co-editors on Our History Has Always Been Contraband. To hear Kaepernick tell it, Kelley and Taylor have long served as his intellectual guides as well.
By churning out an unrelievedly radical collection of readings in black studies, Kelley, Taylor, and Kaepernick confirm the point I made when I first wrote about APAAS. The agenda behind the modern section of the course is both extremist and one-sided. This becomes obvious when the writers originally featured in APAAS (Kelley and Taylor) are given a free hand to design their own version of the course. What they come up with is a monotonous diet of neo-Marxist radicalism.
At points, Our History Has Always Been Contraband is sly about its agenda. Part Two of the book—filled with suggested readings in black studies—is titled “The History They Don’t Want You to Know.” A more honest title would have been, “The Politics They Don’t Want to Shove Down Your Throat.” Most of the sample essays are political manifestos, not histories. One selection rejects the very idea of scholarly objectivity as the credulous acceptance of disguised white-male thought. Another essay spotlights “the radical potential of queer politics” by proposing an intersectional alliance between marginalized groups (e.g., sexual minorities and welfare recipients) in opposition to a white, middle-class, male, heterosexual “enemy.” Another selection poetically alludes to a future in which the revolution will be “irresistible” and “bigtime bigdaddies” will kill themselves.
The few entries that do focus on history have clear — and radical — political implications. A piece on the Haitian revolution from Marxist scholar and revolutionary C. L. R. James is meant to convince students that liberal democracy offers no hope of racial progress — only revolutionary organizing can work. Comparative material on Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, or the prohibition on slavery in America’s Northwest Ordinance, might have set up an interesting debate on racial progress within representative democracies. That sort of debate, however, is precisely what Kaepernick and his collaborators hope to avoid.
An excerpt from the 1977 “Black Feminist Statement” of the Combahee River Collective is in fact historically important. That statement was one of the key origin points of identity politics. The featured excerpt in the Kaepernick reader calls for “the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy” and goes on to make the case for socialism. In essay after essay, this is the message.
Occasional obfuscation notwithstanding, the editors do periodically come right out and honestly say that black studies are, and must be, politically radical from top to bottom. DeSantis argues that APAAS is more political than academic. Taylor’s reply is that traditional curricula have a political agenda too: acceptance of America’s oppressive status quo. Well, if the choice is between an intersectional socialist revolution and America’s constitutional republic, it’s hardly surprising that some states refuse to buy into APAAS’s radicalism.
In fact, however, the choice is not as stark as Kaepernick, Taylor, and Kelley would make it. Their frequent railing against more scholarly, less politicized forms of black studies shows that another approach is possible. Nor does Florida’s Stop WOKE Act ban all readings from the left. Rather, it bans a one-sided curriculum that “promotes, advances,” or “inculcates” core ideas of critical race theory. Had APAAS juxtaposed a few radical readings with more conventional liberal and conservative viewpoints, and then asked students to debate and decide for themselves, APAAS would likely never have been rejected at all. This multiplicity of views is the sort of fix I’ve advocated from the start. It’s the radicals who want to permit only a single political line.
After slamming DeSantis, President Trump’s 1776 Commission, and conservative pushback against the 1619 Project, Robin D. G. Kelley’s introductory essay to Our History Has Always Been Contraband goes after the conservative attack on critical race theory (CRT). According to Kelley, President Trump’s anti-CRT executive order, Christopher Rufo’s anti-CRT rhetoric, and my model anti-CRT legislation all misrepresent critical race theory. Kelley says that, although state laws now forbid it, “no serious scholar believes that someone is ‘inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex.’” In other words, Kelley denies that CRT is racist. Really? Let’s see about that.
True, CRT theorists will tell you that race is “socially constructed,” that racial categories are neither fixed nor biological, and that claims to the contrary are misguided “essentialism.” But look at the treatment of “Whiteness” by leading CRT-based education theorist Bettina Love in her book We Want to Do More Than Survive. Love may seem to talk about “Whiteness” as a mindset, rather than a racial classification — a mindset that can be internalized even by non-whites. But then she adds this: “White folx cannot lose their Whiteness; it is not possible.” All whites can do, in Love’s telling, is try to extirpate and atone for a condition they can never truly escape. Sounds pretty essentialist to me. In practice, in other words, Love is adopting precisely the sort of racist stance she would formally deny that she holds.
Kelley rejects yet another characterization of CRT implicit in the new CRT laws. Those laws prevent teachers from promoting the idea that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic” are racist. CRT says nothing of the kind, Kelley insists. But again, let’s turn to Bettina Love’s book.
Bettina Love repeatedly attacks the ideas of hard work and meritocracy,and does so in the name of CRT. (“CRT challenges color-blindness, meritocracy, and neutrality.” p. 136). Her book, which appeared in 2019, repeatedly goes after character education, as embodied in the “Work Hard, Be Nice” slogan used by KIPP charter schools, an approach Love explicitly excoriates as racist. Not coincidentally, a year after Love’s book appeared, KIPP charter schools abandoned their “Work Hard, Be Nice” slogan. It appears that CRT attacks the values of hard work and meritocracy, exactly as the new CRT laws say it does.
Can Kelley argue that Bettina Love’s version of CRT is some kind of outlier? That would be tough since Kelley himself has a laudatory blurb on the back of Love’s We Want to Do More Than Survive. He unequivocally endorses her book, calling on readers to treat Love’s program as “our North Star.” In short, Kelley denies and disowns in 2023 the version of CRT he praised and proselytized in 2019, pretending that conservatives are wrong about CRT when, to all appearances, Kelley knows perfectly well that they are right.
The controversy over AP African-American studies is far from over. DeSantis’s courage and foresight on this issue are confirmed again and again. But what about other red states, especially states with laws barring promotion of CRT? As of now, only Florida has rejected AP African-American studies. Yet the College Board signaled in April that it’s likely to restore much of the radical material it offloaded or made optional in an effort to get DeSantis on board. As the Kaepernick, Kelley, Taylor book notes, the College Board now seems more responsive to leftist demands for a re-radicalization of the course than to conservative complaints. So what will conservative states do if this already problematic course travels even further down the path of leftist radicalism?
And how will states respond to the College Board’s overall political trajectory — ever more radically leftist since 2014? With its de facto monopoly over college placement testing, the College Board is in a position to act as an unelected national school board. That means it can effectively override and neutralize state efforts to gain control of their own curriculum. With AP African-American studies only the first of what will probably be a series of other ethnic, gender, and sexuality-based “studies” programs, we are probably only at the opening stages of a long-running cultural battle.
Kaepernick and his Marxist buddies have failed to make the case for their radical and monolithic version of education. In the process, however, they’ve reminded us to rejoin a struggle that is anything but over.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.