California Mulls Mandatory Ethnic Studies Identity Politics Course

Carlos Galindo protests outside the Arizona Department of Education in Phoenix in 2011. State lawmakers voted in 2010 to ban ethnic studies. (Matt York / Associated Press)
Matt York / Associated Press

California is considering whether high school students in the state should be required to take an ethnic studies course as a requirement for graduation.

According to the ethnic studies curriculum from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the courses “operate from the consideration that race and racism, have been, and continue to be, profoundly powerful social and cultural forces in American society.”

The curriculum continues:

These courses focus on the experiences of African Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanas/os and Latinas/os, Native Americans, and other racialized peoples in the US. Courses are grounded in the concrete situations of people of color, and use a methodological framing that emphasizes both the structural dimensions of race and racism and the associated cultural dimensions (Adapted from UC Berkeley, Department of Ethnic Studies).

The curriculum states the purpose of the ethnic studies course “is to educate students to be politically, socially, and economically conscious about their personal connections to local and national history.”

“Ethnic Studies focuses on themes of social justice, social responsibility, and social change,” the curriculum adds. “The course spans from past to present, from politics to social reform, allowing students to identify similar social patterns and universal qualities present in other societies, including their own.”

Jose Lara, a Los Angeles teacher, told the Calmatters blog that, in his ethnic studies class, he teaches about Cesar Chavez, leader of the farmworkers’ movement, and about Angel Island , where Chinese immigrants were detained at the turn of the 20th century.

“Ethnic studies helps students develop an academic identity,” Lara said. “It really builds empathy cross-culturally as well so it brings communities that may be different from one another closer together.”

This week, however, the state legislature backed down from a bill to require a semester course in ethnic studies due to a cost of at least $400 million to make it mandatory. The compromise was a pilot study.

Calmatters reports:

The pilot would cover 10 to 15 school districts across the state that will opt in to have ethnic studies as a graduation requirement. Schools would begin applying next year and the program would create the requirement for some students as early as 2022, with schools reporting their findings in 2024.

A state law passed in 2016 already encourages high schools to offer an elective course in ethnic studies, and requires the state to create a model curriculum for the class by 2020. Currently only 1 percent of California’s public high school students take ethnic studies.

Critics of the bill say such a graduation requirement amounts to indoctrination in identity politics at the same time students – particularly minority students – are failing in education basics.

“We have a very large segment of our black population, specifically they are boys who by a certain age in their educational career can’t read and write at the same level as their white counterparts,” said Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, a Republican, regarding her vote against the bill. “I think more of a focus on the essentials, the basics, for students is where the focus should be.”

Lara and the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside), cite a study that claims attendance among ninth graders increased by 21 percent and their grade point average also increased when they took an ethnic studies class.

Among the skills students who take the course will be expected to perform are:

  • Consider how a nation confronts, emerges from, and atones for its past.
  • Explore the histories, struggles, and triumphs of the LGBTQ community in the United States.
  • Examine and evaluate gender stereotypes.
  • Examine and analyze the effects of dehumanization through the capture, trade, and enslavement of Africans, within a regional and global context.
  • Analyze and describe the effectiveness of the various approaches employed by different leaders of the Civil Rights and Black Power movement.
  • Understand the role of ongoing resistance and self-determination in the trajectory of the African American community.
  • Examine connections between current and historical events (e.g., How does #BlackLivesMatter relate to Selma?).
  • Analyze the implications of the concept of Manifest Destiny (e.g. Mexican American War, Westward Expansion).
  • Describe the role of violence, oppression, and persecution in the West (e.g. lynching, Texas Rangers, Bear Flag Revolt).
  • Analyze the development of political power within the Latino American community and its relationship to changing power structures in the United States.
  • Evaluate the impact of immigration policies on Latino Americans.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson supports the ethnic studies requirement.

“I believe this is critical to allow schools districts [sic] to adapt their courses to reflect the pupil demographics in their communities as an innovative strategy to constructively impact students both socially and academically,” he said in a statement.

Photo: file

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