Last year, as a massive uprising against systemic racism swept across the world, activists fighting for Black liberation and racial justice put radical demands against institutional racism on the table, such as abolishing and defunding the police. Another key step toward challenging institutional racism is the push for ethnic studies and teaching about systemic racism in U.S. schools. I am part of that fight in California.
Last year, Pittsburg, California’s school board passed an ethnic studies resolution and tasked an ethnic studies committee with implementing curricula for the school district. Pittsburg is a working-class, ethnically diverse city in the San Francisco Bay Area. Founded initially as a coal mining town, one of the main employers is the USS-POSCO steel mill. The majority of the population is non-white: white people (Latino and non-Latino) are 35 percent, Black people are 15 percent, Asians are 16 percent, Latinos (regardless of race) are 43 percent, while non-white Latinos are 21 percent. The city’s school district student population — a total of 11,015 students — is 95 percent non-white and 77 percent are low-income. As an African American community member who grew up here and has lived here most of my life, I sit on this committee.
Racism has been in the United States for over 400 years, stemming from slavery and genocide. However, Trump’s emboldening of white nationalism and last year’s protests against police violence have raised the level of urgency to fight against systemic racism. In this crucial moment, the push for ethnic studies is an important fight because accurate, anti-racist, multicultural educational curricula are vital to creating a better, more just society.
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The Push for Ethnic Studies in California and Beyond
Ethnic studies is the interdisciplinary study of the histories, experiences, cultures, and struggles of racial and ethnic groups within a society, particularly those that are marginalized in the United States. The discipline was born from a Black-led student strike at San Francisco State University in 1968 to demand a non-Eurocentric curriculum and equity in college admission. This fight was initiated by Black students, and other students of color joined as part of a larger anti-colonial coalition called the Third World Liberation Front.
In the wake of last year’s uprisings, more school districts across the country are implementing ethnic studies and other forms of multicultural education. In December 2020, Connecticut became the first state to mandate high schools offer African American, Black, Puerto Rican and Latino studies beginning in fall 2022. Washington State is on the road to mandating ethnic studies; in March 2021, the state’s board of education passed a resolution supporting ethnic studies. In April, New Jersey passed a law requiring its public schools offer courses on diversity, inclusion and equality.
The work of the ethnic studies committee in Pittsburg, California, comes amid the state’s growing efforts to institutionalize ethnic studies within the educational system. We emphasize that ethnic studies develops critical thinking skills; improves attendance, graduation rates and college enrollment (because marginalized students who are taught their own history have a greater sense of belonging, self-affirmation, confidence and agency); and teaches students the histories of non-European peoples and how they’re intertwined with ongoing racial inequalities in the United States. The majority of the over 6.1 million students enrolled in California’s K-12 public school system are non-white. White students are 22.4 percent, Latinos (regardless of race) are nearly 55 percent, Asians are 9.3 percent (Filipinos are 2.4 percent) and Black students are 5.3 percent.
Last year, on August 17, 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that requires college freshmen, beginning in 2021-22, in the California State University system to take an ethnic studies class focusing on one of four ethnic groups — African American studies, Native American studies, Asian American studies or Latino/a (Latinx) studies. The California Faculty Association also sponsored the bill. While a college ethnic studies requirement has been discussed for years, last summer’s massive uprising against systemic racism arguably made the push more urgent.
The state’s community college system (full disclosure: where I’m employed) followed suit. Last July, the board of governors for the California community college system unanimously voted to make ethnic studies a general education requirement. Therefore, students pursuing an associate degree in a California community college will be required to take an ethnic studies course in African American studies, Native American studies, Asian American studies or Latino/a (Latinx) studies. The requirement could take effect as soon as fall 2022 but will likely go into effect in fall 2023.
Thanks to sustained activist pressure and added urgency from Black Lives Matter protests, California’s K-12 education system is also moving forward with ethnic studies. Last March, the California Board of Education unanimously (11-0) approved a model ethnic studies curriculum for the state’s high schools. It is the first statewide ethnic studies curriculum in the nation. The model curriculum, which went through different drafts, centers on the main four groups typically discussed in college ethnic studies classes — African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans. It also includes lesson plans on other groups like Jewish people, Arab Americans, Sikhs and Armenians. The curriculum, however, is optional — not a mandated curriculum. School districts can add or ignore the suggested curriculum.
Other California school districts, like Pittsburg, have passed resolutions to include ethnic studies in their curriculum. In April 2019, the Salinas Union High School District Board of Trustees voted to approve a semester-long high school ethnic studies course requirement. Over 90 percent of the students in the district are non-white and 88 percent of the total student population are Latino. During last summer’s protest against police terrorism and systemic racism, the Salinas School Board passed a resolution supporting Black Lives Matter and pledging to challenge institutional racism.
Also coming on the heels of last summer’s racial justice protests, Santa Ana Unified School District Board of Education unanimously voted to create an ethnic studies high school requirement. Many parents, educators and alumni publicly supported the resolution, citing the necessity that students learn about other cultures and present-day racial oppression. Many school superintendents in Orange County, during a county education forum, argued that ethnic studies was necessary because students and the larger society benefit by examining U.S. history from a multicultural perspective.
Backlash to Ethnic Studies
As ethnic studies programs grow around the country, right-wing pushback is also mounting — overlapping with efforts to ban the teaching of critical race theory in U.S. schools. Critical race theory and ethnic studies are not the same: Critical race theory is a highly academic, and rather esoteric, legal theory that analyzes the manifestations of racism in U.S. law; it is mostly taught in law schools, not in K-12 public education. Meanwhile, ethnic studies focuses on the histories, cultures and struggles of marginalized racial/ethnic groups, especially as they relate to the overall history of the United States. However, right-wing opposition, driven by conservative think tanks and a network of activist groups funded by right-wing billionaire businessman Charles Koch, is targeting both ethnic studies and critical race theory in an attempt first to eliminate anti-racist trainings in corporations and schools and second to wage a larger culture war to undermine teachings that are critical of racism. Their goal is to maintain status quo educational curricula that are still grounded in white supremacy and American exceptionalism. At the helm is conservative activist, writer and filmmaker Christopher Rufo, who has become the pied piper of associating any study of the history of race in the United States with critical race theory.
Opponents of critical race theory argue that it is a form of radical indoctrination and that it promotes racial division. They paint the theory’s critical analysis of systemic racism as an attack on white people and “American values.” Much of the pushback against ethnic studies comes from opponents who argue that ethnic studies is a way to shoehorn in critical race theory and, therefore, indoctrination into the school system.
So far, over 20 states in the country have passed bills banning the teaching of what opponents deem as critical race theory and limiting the teaching of historical and institutional racism in schools. Recently, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that bans the teaching of the New York Times’s 1619 Project (a journalistic project that focuses on slavery as a crucial foundation of U.S. history), and prescribes how Texas teachers can discuss current events, which educators argue limits honest discussions on race and racism. Idaho, Tennessee, Arizona and Florida passed similar bills banning the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 public school classrooms, while more than a dozen are considering similar legislation.
A Black teacher of social studies in Red Oak Middle School in Battleboro, North Carolina, Rodney Pierce, has faced backlash from parents who say this teaching of history, race and slavery is biased. Pierce is not the only one. A growing number of frustrated and exhausted Black educators are quitting their jobs due to backlash from parents, including threats of violence, against discussions of race in the classroom and school commitments to diversity and equity.
In Salinas, California, where the school board voted to approve an ethnic studies requirement, some parents and right-wing activists have pushed back against it, arguing that ethnic studies is a way to push critical race theory into the schools. Despite the backlash, students at Salinas Union High School District support ethnic studies and defended it at a Salinas school board meeting in July. Similarly, in Orange County, conservative organizers and parents are opposing ethnic studies curricula in the county, accusing the proposed courses as “anti-white.”
A Political and Personal Struggle
I was one of the very few African American men to graduate from Pittsburg High School and attend Stanford University, where I earned my bachelor’s in International Relations. In my decade-long teaching and writing career post-Stanford, I’ve seen how the education system is a site of institutional racism that directly impacts non-white students. I’ve also written about other forms of systemic racism, such as the police and gentrification. Ethnic studies, an educational discipline that teaches non-white students their own history and empowers them to be agents of their own destiny, is crucial to challenging institutional racism within the education system.
I am part of this fight for ethnic studies because this is tied to my struggle. I am not just speaking as a writer or committee member but from the perspective of someone impacted directly by ongoing systematic anti-Black racism stemming from slavery. I am Black, a proud person of African descent, African diaspora, and, by ethnicity, African American — a descendant of enslaved Africans brought to the United States. My ancestors were kidnapped from Western/Central Africa, trafficked to, and enslaved in the United States. They were the victims and survivors of the transatlantic slave trade and U.S. chattel slavery. Their bodies and slave labor were the start-up capital for American capitalism; their slave labor was exploited to build Wall Street, the nation’s economy and foundational infrastructure, the White House, Washington, D.C. and Capitol Hill, which is where the infamous January 6 attack occurred.
My true ancestral lineage cannot be traced to one specific African ethnic group or nation of people. The violence of the transatlantic slave trade snatched 45 different Western and Central African ethnic groups and severed direct ties to our Indigenous African cultures. Our Indigenous languages and names were ripped away from us. Enslaved Africans in the United States came from different parts of Western and Central Africa — the Senegambia region, present-day Congo, Ghana, Angola, Nigeria and as far as Mozambique. Therefore, my lineage, like the lineage of other descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas, is an amalgamation of different African ethnic groups, including the Temne people of Sierra Leone.
When my ancestors were trafficked to these shores and enslaved, they kept whatever they could from Africa and formed their own ethnicity, culture and way of life within the United States — blues, jazz, barbecue, jambalaya, inventions like the stoplight and cell phone, and much more. Blues and jazz music have enough African cultural retention (jazz — rhythm, polyrhythms, syncopation; blues — blues scale deriving from an African pentatonic system that makes room for blue notes) that they are still part of the larger African cultural family, while also forming the foundation of American popular music. For myself, I embrace my African roots through djembe and other forms of African American music.
Even in a multi-ethnic city like Pittsburg, California, in a region as culturally diverse and ostensibly progressive as the San Francisco Bay Area, the education on Black history I received in the school district was pretty dismal. It was also pretty dismal when it came to the histories of other marginalized ethnic groups in our community like Mexicans, Central Americans, Filipinos, South Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans. The curriculum was pretty Eurocentric and irrelevant to our struggles; I was not the only one who felt this way.
Thankfully, I was exposed to my own extracurricular reading. As a bookish kid, I was surrounded by books on Black history and raised by a single Black mother (who is a retired public school teacher in the district) and extended family in which race, Black history and culture were a normal part of family discussion. That cultural upbringing shaped my sense of Black identity and I can see how that sense of identity empowered me in my life. Non-white students who have shared histories of being oppressed by white supremacy and colonization should have that same empowering education. This is even more relevant since the school district and state of California are being sued by the ACLU for institutional racism against Black and Latinx students by disproportionately placing them in special education classrooms and denying them necessary services — a sign that the struggle is far from over.
Because of my African lineage and specific cultural heritage, I am tied to a centuries-long political struggle against racism and settler colonialism in the United States. This is a major reason why I am fighting for ethnic studies in my own community. My community has always been proudly multi-ethnic, with its own Black Bay Area culture, but neither the education curriculum, nor faculty and administration demographic, ever reflected that. It’s time to change that.