Newly Revised AP US History Standards Take Softer Tone on Racial History of America

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National Guardsmen with bared bayonets hold back a group of demonstrators protesting segregation, in Cambridge, May 14, 1964. Shortly after, Brig. Gen. George Gelston (far right), commander of the Guardsmen, ordered his men to fire tear gas into the group when they refused pleas to disperse. Racism in America is one of the areas that new AP curriculum for high schools is accused of downplaying in its latest revision. AFP/Getty

The College Board, the company behind Advanced Placement courses for U.S. high school students, released a revised set of standards for AP U.S. history on Thursday morning. Though the number of mentions of the word slavery remains roughly the same, the new document significantly alters the original framework’s tone around slavery, racism, and Native American relations.  

Passages that previously cited racial attitudes, stereotyping, and white superiority in early American history have been rewritten or deleted, and some passages that previously implicated early European colonists in racism and aiding in destructive Native American warfare have been softened and replaced with more passive language.  

The word “bellicose,” where it was used in the prior edition (p. 79) to refer to President Reagan’s rhetoric, was also removed. That passage was pointed out specifically by conservative critics of the the prior framework. A section on American identity has also been amended to include “American exceptionalism” (p. 11).

Passages that referred to the Progressive Era and the New Deal were also changed, adding qualifying statements to mentions of inequality, characterizing the New Deal’s legacy as one of “regulatory agencies,” and adding a section to explain that “the Progressives were divided over many issues,” among other changes. Whereas in the prior version, progressive-era journalists and reformers worked to address “social problems associated with an industrial society” (p. 66) in the new version, those journalists “attacked” “what they saw” as corruption and inequality (p. 69).

AP US History 2015 Revision A phrase referring to President Reagan’s rhetoric as “bellicose” was also removed from the standards for high school Advanced Placement U.S. History, among other changes. The College Board

In a statement published Thursday morning, the College Board wrote that statements in the new edition are “clearer and more historically precise, and less open to misinterpretation or perceptions of imbalance.”

“Every statement in the 2015 edition has been examined with great care based on the historical record and the principled feedback the College Board received,” the College Board wrote in an emailed statement. The revisions released today come after a public comment period following the release of the 2014 framework last year. The 2014 document, a decade in the making, was denounced as anti-American by conservative critics. Oklahoma, Georgia and Texas all introduced bills threatening to pull the course altogether, and the Republican National Committee passed a resolution accusing the 2014 AP U.S. framework of promoting "a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects." Less than a year later, College Board released the new set of revisions.

Below is a selection of the changes made between the two documents:

Slavery, Native Americans, and Race in Early America

In the prior document, from 2014, a section described English colonialists’ lack of “accepted intermarriage and cross-racial sexual unions” with native peoples and enslaved Africans that led “to the development of a rigid racial hierarchy” in English colonies (p.36) . That passage was removed in the new document, though intermarriage in Spanish and French colonies is mentioned.

Under the same section, the old document read that “Many Europeans developed a belief in white superiority to justify their subjugation of Africans and American Indians, using several different rationales” (p. 35). In the new version, “white superiority” is deleted, and the line is changed to say that extended contact with Native Americans and Africans produced “evolving religious, cultural, and racial justifications for [their] subjugation” (p. 28). A line about the slave trade “leading to the emergence of racial stereotyping and the development of strict racial categories among British colonists, which contrasted with Spanish and French acceptance of racial gradations” (p. 40) is also removed.

The new document also emphasizes laws over “belief” in another section describing British racism  in the subjugation of Africans and Native people. Whereas the old document reads:

“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.” (p. 37)

The new document reads: “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.” (p. 34).

In the old document, a “Key concept” section reads, “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.” (p. 39)

That line is also cut from the new framework, but a sample response to an exam question survives, which takes a more passive approach: “The introduction of guns, other weapons, and alcohol stimulated cultural and demographic changes in some Native American societies.” (p. 127)

Racism in Antebellum America

In describing the racial and cultural landscape of America from 1800 to 1848, the old document states that, “Many white Americans in the South asserted their regional identity through pride in the institution of slavery, insisting that the federal government should defend that institution.” (p. 50)

The new document removes the language of “pride” in slavery, replacing it with a gentler argument: “Antislavery efforts increased in the North, while in the South, although the majority of Southerners owned no slaves, most leaders argued that slavery was part of the Southern way of life.” (p. 51)

A line in the old document referring to “rising xenophobia,” “antiblack sentiments in political and popular culture,” and “restrictive anti-Indian policies” in the early- to mid-1800s was also deleted in the new version (p. 50).

In the same section, a line that previously stated, “Enslaved and free African Americans, isolated at the bottom of the social hierarchy, created communities and strategies to protect their dignity and their family structures, even as some launched abolitionist and reform movements aimed at changing their status,” (p. 50) has been reduced to a description of enslaved and free African Americans creating “communities and strategies to protect their dignity and family structures,” and says they “joined” political efforts to change their status (p. 45).

The New Deal

In the section that deals with the New Deal, language is changed, framing it in the new version as less successful and its lasting legacy to be one of “regulatory agencies.”

The old document reads: “Although the New Deal did not completely overcome the Depression, it left a legacy of reforms and agencies that endeavored to make society and individuals more secure, and it helped foster a long-term political realignment in which many ethnic groups, African Americans, and working-class communities identified with the Democratic Party.” (p. 67)

The new document reads: “Although the New Deal did not end the Depression, it left a legacy of reforms and regulatory agencies and fostered a long-term political realignment in which many ethnic groups, African Americans, and working class communities identified with the Democratic Party.” (p. 70)

The Progressive Era

In the section on the Progressive Era, language around advocacy is also toned down. Whereas the old document reads that “In the late 1890s and the early years of the 20th century, journalists and Progressive reformers—largely urban and middle class, and often female—worked to reform existing social and political institutions at the local, state, and federal levels by creating new organizations aimed at addressing social problems associated with an industrial society,” (p. 66) the new document reads that “some” journalists “attacked what they saw as political corruption.”

The full quote from new document reads:

“Some Progressive Era journalists attacked what they saw as political corruption, social injustice, and economic inequality, while reformers, often from the middle and upper classes and including many women, worked to effect social changes in cities and among immigrant populations.” (p. 69)

Civil Rights Movements

When discussing the Civil Rights movements after World War II, the former document read that advocates “raised awareness” of inequality despite “the perception of overall affluence.” The new version ditches the word “perception,” and describes advocates as raising “concerns,” “despite an overall affluence.”

The old text reads: “Despite the perception of overall affluence in postwar America, advocates raised awareness of the prevalence and persistence of poverty as a national problem, sparking efforts to address this issue.” (p. 75)

Which has been changed to: “Despite an overall affluence in postwar America, advocates raised concerns about the prevalence and persistence of poverty as a national problem.” (p. 80)

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A College Board official declined to comment specifically on deleted portions and changes made to tone throughout the new framework, deferring instead to a statement from the company:

“Every statement in the 2015 edition has been examined with great care based on the historical record and the principled feedback the College Board received. The result is a clearer and more balanced approach to the teaching of American history that remains faithful to the requirements that colleges and universities set for academic credit. The new edition has been embraced by educators, including AP U.S. History teachers who reviewed it at the recent AP Annual Conference.”

Click here for a PDF of the new 2015 revision to the AP US History Standards.

Click here for a PDF of the old 2014 revision to the AP US History Standards.