This article was originally published Sept. 17 in RealClearInvestigations.
Like growing numbers of public high school students across the country, many California kids are receiving classroom instruction in how race, class, gender, sexuality, and citizenship status are tools of oppression, power, and privilege. They are taught about colonialism, state violence, racism, intergenerational trauma, heteropatriarchy, and the common thread that links them: “whiteness.”
Students are then graded on how well they apply these concepts in writing assignments, performances, and community organizing projects.
At Santa Monica High School, for example, students organize and carry out “a systematized campaign” for social justice that can take the form of a protest, a leaflet, a workshop, play, or research project. They demonstrate their mastery of the subject matter by teaching about social justice to middle school students.
Students at Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale are assigned to write a “breakup letter with a form of oppression,” such as toxic masculinity, heteronormativity, the Eurocentric curriculum, or the Dakota Access Pipeline. Students are asked to “persuade their audience of the dehumanizing and damaging effects of their chosen topic.”
Students at schools in Anaheim, San Jose, Oakland, and San Francisco are taught how to write a manifesto to school administrators listing “demands” for reforms.
Some conduct a grand jury investigation to determine who was responsible for the genocide of the state’s Native Americans. And one class holds a mock trial to determine which party is most responsible for the deaths of millions of native Tainos: Christopher Columbus, the soldiers, the king and queen of Spain, or the entire European system of colonialism.
These are just a few examples of the ethnic studies courses taught at 253 California schools, nearly 20% of the state’s high schools, according to 2017-18 data.
California is now looking at expanding this approach in a proposed statewide curriculum. The expansion could affect up to 1.7 million high school students if a second bill, making ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement, is approved.
The ethnic studies movement has been underway for years and is now poised to enter the mainstream, raising tough questions for educators and policymakers about how to present such material to teenagers. Teachers around the country are already offering ethnic studies classes, units, or lessons on their own initiative, citing a growing urgency to confront racism, sexism, homophobia, and other entrenched social inequalities.
Two years ago, the Indiana Legislature mandated that high schools offer an ethnic studies elective. As approved by the state’s Education Department, the class teaches about the contributions of ethnic and racial groups, various cultural practices, as well as such concepts as privilege, systematic oppression, and implicit bias. And now three states—California, Oregon, and Vermont—are trying to create authoritative statewide templates that, advocates hope, will make it easier for schools to adopt ethnic studies.
Advocates believe they are within striking distance of making ethnic studies a graduation requirement in high schools across the country, making it a prerequisite for preparing students to navigate the world, much as learning about the Western tradition had once been.
They say the shift to ethnic studies appears inevitable because of the nation’s changing demographics, the growing awareness of white supremacy and other forms of systemic discrimination, and a newfound political clout for the ethnic studies movement.
“We don’t want students to have the option not to take ethnic studies,” said Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and a board member of the national Association for Ethnic Studies. “It is as important as taking a lab science.”
But the spread of ethnic studies from college campuses to K-12 education is raising alarm among those who find the field one-sided, ideological, and frightening. They note, for example, that college students generally take such courses voluntarily, whereas as high schoolers and middle schoolers may not have a choice.
“It comes dangerously close to turning the American exceptionalism on its head: Yes, we’re exceptional—exceptionally evil,” said Will Swaim, president of the California Policy Center, a free market think tank. “It is remindful of reeducation camps in Vietnam or China. It is indoctrination rather than education.”
Advocates say that the field of ethnic studies has a special mission, distinct from other academic subjects.
“I oftentimes think of ethnic studies as radical social action,” said Julia Jordan-Zachery, a professor and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and president of the Association for Ethnic Studies.
“It is education and knowledge that’s produced to influence social change,” she said, “which makes it different in part from other types of disciplines whose primary concerns are quote-unquote to simply produce knowledge.”
Ethnic studies programs are already established at many of the nation’s universities and focus on the experiences of people of color: Blacks, Latinos (Hispanics, Chicanos), Native Americans, Asians, and Arabs/Muslims.
Expanding to the K-12 level is a bold step that has met with some resistance.
The statewide California ethnic studies curriculum was proposed in June by an advisory committee, composed of ethnic studies teachers and professors, and met with public outcry that such classes are designed to recruit students into political activism, indoctrinate them with ideological jargon, and promote the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
Jewish, Armenian, Assyrian, Hellenic, and other ethnic groups left out of the proposal are demanding their narratives be included as part of the curriculum. And critics also wonder why many ethnic groups are left out, but the LGBTQ community is included even though it is technically not an ethnicity.
California education officials will work on revisions that could take at least until next year to complete. The state’s Instructional Quality Commission, which advises the State Board of Education, is set to meet Sept. 20 to begin discussing changes.
Arizona and Texas have fought political battles over the issue, and the Arizona clash is credited with galvanizing the movement. Indeed, one of the assigned readings in an ethnic studies class offered at the Camino Nuevo High School in Los Angeles is an op-ed titled “Arizona’s Curriculum Battles: A 500-Year Civilizational War.” The casus belli was a 2010 legislative ban of a voluntary Mexican American studies class that was being taught in eight high schools and middle schools in the Tucson Unified School District.
Conservative critics said the course content constituted a form of hate speech and fomented racial resentment. The ban was challenged in court.
At the trial, then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne denounced the class as “extremely anti-American” and “destructive ethnic chauvinism,” alleging it promoted “essentially revolution against the American government, that the borders were artificial, [and] that the bronze continent was for the bronze people.”
A federal judge overturned the ban in 2017, ruling that it was discriminatory and fueled by race-based fears.
Likewise, the Texas State Board of Education rejected a Mexican American studies course in 2014 as a statewide elective, triggering a political standoff that was resolved last year with an approval.
Advocates in Texas say that even before the state approved the elective, about 40 ethnic studies courses and programs were offered in elementary, middle, and high schools as well as after-school programs.
“Part of our rationale was that a statewide curriculum would make it easier for local districts and schools to adopt it,” said advocate Juan Tejeda, a retired professor of Mexican American studies and music at Palo Alto College in San Antonio.
Oregon and Vermont are next in the queue, both developing statewide ethnic studies standards. Oregon’s proposed standards, which have not received final approval, would introduce first-graders to such concepts as racism, gender identity, and systems of power.
Under Vermont’s law, adopted earlier this year, an advisory working group will recommend rules, standards, or legal changes for teaching ethnic studies and social equity studies from prekindergarten through the 12th grade. The state’s Board of Education will consider the group’s proposals by mid-2022.
There is no single approach to teaching ethnic studies, and teachers are encouraged to adapt the materials to the needs of their communities. A common feature of the classes is discussing how oppression and privilege shape one’s group identity, whether white or black, straight or gay, male or female, binary or nonbinary, among the identity categories commonly recognized in the discipline.
This self-discovery exercise can be a sensitive issue, and not just for straight white male students.
At a high school in North Carolina’s Wake County, 10th-graders were asked at the beginning of the school year to answer a “Diversity Inventory” worksheet, asking them to identify the gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, ability, religion, and socio-economic status for themselves as well as about their friends, neighbors, teachers, and others.
The school system forced the teacher to stop administering the “Diversity Inventory” following complaints. One former school board member who is gay expressed dismay on his Facebook page that LGBTQ students were being asked to announce their sexual orientation and to out others in the community.
Last year a North Carolina mom, also in Wake County, complained to school officials when her 8-year-old son brought home a handout explaining white privilege. The News & Observer of Raleigh reported that the mom, who is of black and Hispanic ancestry, said her son was confused and thought the handout was saying that whites are superior.
Still, ethnic studies programs now enjoy a reach that was unimaginable when the movement was launched by a student coalition calling itself the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State University in 1968 with a five-month campus strike and demands to change the Eurocentric curriculum.
“One of the advances in the last 40-50 years is we are in the professoriate, administrative, faculty, superintendents of schools, we’re now in the legislature,” said Kenneth Monteiro, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and former dean of the College of Ethnic Studies. “We’re just in a resurgence now.”
Ethnic studies have been defined in various ways, but the movement emphasizes teaching about European conquest and domination from the perspectives of those who were subjugated and colonized, often contrasting the greed and brutality of the conquerors with the resistance and resilience of the conquered. It deals with historical figures, writers, activists, and resistance movements that are often absent from standard presentations of American history.
“It asks all students to think about structural inequality and the ways in which people have historically and in the present empowered themselves, to make change, to eradicate inequality and injustice,” said Amy Sueyoshi, dean of the College of Ethnic Studies, professor of race and resistance studies, and professor of sexuality studies at San Francisco State University. “The ethnic studies curriculum actually asks for transformative change. It asks for people to make the world a better place.”
The hundreds of existing ethnic studies courses taught in California are outlined in detail in 831 pages of course descriptions submitted by the schools to the University of California to qualify for high school credit in college admissions.
The courses come in different flavors, some emphasizing oppression, resistance, and activism, while others are structured like traditional courses in history, culture, and social studies. Some class descriptions state that students are taught multiple perspectives and are expected to weigh the evidence to independently reach their own conclusions.
From the outset, ethnic studies have been marked by a tension between the activists and the scholars, creating two factions within the movement, said Fabio Rojas, a sociology professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, and author of “From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline” (2007, The Johns Hopkins University Press).
In many universities the activists are held in check by academic standards, but some campuses have gone “completely activist,” said Rojas, who favors scholarship over political agitation. This tension is now playing out in California and has sparked clashes in other states, he said.
“They come to a view where there is a permanent state of warfare,” Rojas said of the activists. “It’s a Manichaean struggle between good and evil. But instead of demons and angels, we have capitalists and the workers.”
California’s proposed curriculum, now undergoing revisions, opted for an activist approach, describing ethnic studies as a moral debt to be paid to students of color, “owed after centuries of educational trauma, dehumanization, and enforced sociopolitical, cultural-historical, economic, and moral constraints via the education system.”
It says ethnic studies classes can start with “community-unity chants” and encourages students “to decolonize their diets by reintroducing traditional and ancestral foods.”
The California curriculum proposal, based on university-level courses, is awash in academic terminology, such as hybridities, nepantlas, praxis, hxrstory, womxn, xdisciplinary, countergemonic, misogynoir, and femmes of color—coinages lifted from gender theory, feminist theory, and other academic specialties.
The classes don’t use a standard textbook, but a commonly assigned text is Howard Zinn’s leftist classic, “A People’s History of the United States.” There are many other assigned readings, from “A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present” to “Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization.” Some classes also assign novels, drama, and poetry by Chicano and African American writers such as Julia Alvarez and Ralph Ellison.
The proposal generated more than 20,000 public comments, only 365 of which favored the draft as submitted. The vast majority of criticisms involved concerns that the BDS movement against Israel was included in the proposed curriculum and anti-Semitism was not. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond joined the California Legislative Jewish Caucus in publicly urging an overhaul.
The California proposal was off-putting even to some progressives, such as California Assembly member José Medina, who had introduced the legislation to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. A former high school teacher who taught ethnic studies and Chicano studies, Medina said he was mystified by some of the jargon and concerned by the course content.
As a result, Medina, a Democrat, is delaying his graduation requirement legislation by a year to give the California Department of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission time to revise the curriculum.
“I probably would say there were some lessons that didn’t have the students thinking for themselves as much as I would like them to,” Medina said. “I want students to draw their own conclusions.”
One objection is the strong language linking the United States and capitalism to oppression and genocide, while omitting mention of the cruelty of non-European empires.
“It is not about the study of ethnic groups, but a political statement masquerading as education,” the American Jewish Committee wrote to the chair of California’s Instructional Quality Commission. “This myopic worldview explains as well the absence of any discussion of anti-Semitism, a form of hatred emanating from both the political right and left. In short, the curriculum adopts politically tendentious views on race and identity which should not be taught as unchallenged truths in our state’s public schools.”
Academic research on ethnic studies tells a different story. It can have a marked influence on students of color through improved class attendance, higher graduation rates, and overall better academic performance.
“These kinds of curriculum can promote feelings of belongingness in school and that school is a space for them, and that’s something that can catalyze that latent motivation to learn,” said Thomas Dee, an economist and a professor of education at Stanford University who has studied the issue.
Jordan-Zachery, the North Carolina professor, shared a commonly held suspicion among advocates about the backlash: “This notion that somehow kids are going to be harmed by being exposed to information is really a cover, it’s a proxy for something much deeper.”
Advocates say that California’s proposed curriculum, with its radical critique of capitalism and empire, represents ethnic studies in its unadulterated form. To strip out the calls for student action and social change, and to toss in a hodgepodge of perspectives that don’t reflect the experiences of communities of color, would dilute ethnic studies into a milquetoast multiculturalism.
“An attempt to uplift the voice of communities of color has been met with the all too familiar ‘But what about my oppression?’” Theresa Montaño, professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge, said in a statement issued by advocates in response to the objections.
“We recognize that edits can be made, but to eliminate the entire project we worked on is a highly political, undemocratic, and many would say, oppressive act,” wrote Montaño, who was a member of the advisory committee that created California’s proposed ethnic studies curriculum.
A number of advocates said that the conceptual starting point of ethnic studies is to “decenter” the dominant cultural perspective: whiteness.
“It’s not ethnic studies if it doesn’t challenge whiteness,” said Monteiro, who is also a board member of the Association for Ethnic Studies. He described “whiteness” as a 500-year-old artificial social construct that functions as a God, is perceived as all-powerful and never directly named, so that it can never be talked about and challenged.
Ethnic studies are all about smashing this manmade idol, he said, and that process can be painful.
“Are you asking me is there a way of doing this without making the powerful person uncomfortable? I don’t know if that can be done,” Monteiro said. “We actually prepare our teachers to know that on the first day of class, or in the first week, you may have students who are sobbing. This is the first time they’ve had to be this uncomfortable.”