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Push for Ethnic Studies Faces a Dilemma: Whose Stories to Tell?

By Dana Goldstein - Rep: August 26, 2019

Discuss a recent instance of police brutality in your community. Read op-eds arguing for and against legal status for unauthorized immigrants. Compare and contrast border conditions in the Palestinian territories and Mexico.

Those are some of the lesson plans suggested in a draft of California’s newly proposed ethnic studies curriculum for K-12 public schools. The documents have led to bitter debate in recent weeks over whether they veer into left-wing propaganda, and whether they are inclusive enough of Jews and other ethnic groups. Now, amid a growing outcry, even progressive policymakers in the state are promising significant revisions.

The materials are unapologetically activist – and jargony. They ask students to “critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression.” A goal, the draft states, is to “connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice.”

Many educators and policymakers across the country have been pushing for instructional materials that confront race in America, citing instances of racist violence and the divisive and inflammatory rhetoric ricocheting in politics, on social media and beyond. California is one of the first three states, alongside Oregon and Vermont, to forge ahead this year with creating K-12 materials in ethnic studies.

The debate in California highlights some of the difficult questions that educators will face: Which groups, and whose histories, should be included? Is the purpose to create young, left-leaning activists, or to give students access to a broad range of opinions? And are teachers, the majority of whom are white, ready to teach a discipline that is unfamiliar to many of them?

“We’re fighting for the history we don’t see,” said Jorge Pacheco Jr., a member of the committee that wrote the draft and an ethnic studies teacher in the Mountain View Whisman School District.

The California course materials focus on people of color, such as African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, Central American immigrants and Pacific Islanders. Much of the material is uncontroversial, including lessons that ask students to examine a 1943 real estate deed restricting occupancy to white tenants, or to learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

But after California released the draft of the materials for public comment in June, some Jewish legislators and organizations complained that anti-Semitism was not an area of emphasis, while the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel came up repeatedly. Armenian, Greek, Hindu and Korean organizations later joined the Jewish groups in calling for revisions.

Shereen Bhalla, director of education for the Hindu American Foundation, said the curriculum should include information on the contributions Indian-Americans have made to the United States, and on the discrimination they have faced through immigration restrictions and hate crimes.

It did not help that some of the terms used throughout the more than 300 pages of documents – “hxrstory, “cisheteropatriarchy,” “accompliceship” – were inscrutable to many in Sacramento and beyond.

The documents are “progressive to the point of self-parody,” Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a Republican, said. “Ethnic studies is a serious topic and should be treated as such, not as an opportunity to infuse classrooms with ideology.”

About a fifth of the state’s high schools currently offer an ethnic studies class, according to the California Department of Education.

Faith Palileo, 18, said that before she took ethnic studies at Balboa High School in San Francisco, she would often cut class. She considered school a chore, filled with textbook-driven lessons that were irrelevant to her life.

That changed, she said, when she enrolled in American history and ethnic studies classes taught by Nikhil Laud, one of the leaders of San Francisco’s program, which is seen as a model by many across the state.

She and her classmates made posters, featuring their own photographs, on which they wrote down and countered the racial and ethnic stereotypes they had faced. They watched “13th,” a documentary by Ava DuVernay about the links between mass incarceration and slavery, and read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”

“What was so mind-blowing to me was all throughout my education, especially in history classes, it was very Eurocentric,” said Ms. Palileo, who is Filipino-American. “Folks of color were included but were always oppressed.”

The 2016 law that led to the California course materials, which will be optional for schools to use, did not precisely define ethnic studies, leaving much of the work to a committee of teachers and professors appointed by a state curriculum board. Members of that committee said they had taken their cues from the way ethnic studies is taught at the college level, where the discipline has traditionally encompassed the study of four groups: African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian-Americans.

The draft falls short, said Assemblyman Jose Medina, a Democrat and former ethnic studies teacher. He has introduced a bill to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement but said he now supported slowing down the process, in part to make the materials more inclusive.

“The assumption that ethnic studies is only about people of color is a mistake,” he said in an interview.

The ethnic studies laws in Oregon and Vermont include the study of ethnic minorities, but also other marginalized “social” groups. The Vermont law mentions “groups that have been historically subject to persecution or genocide,” and both states specifically include people of “Middle Eastern descent.”

A July draft of the Oregon standards provided to The New York Times by the state’s Department of Education mentioned anti-Semitism but not Islamophobia. Amit Kobrowski, a state social sciences specialist, said the document would be revised after public feedback, and would not be fully implemented until the 2026-27 school year.

Ethnic studies was born of protests and activism at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1960s. Students of color demanded that universities update their course offerings to include the histories and perspectives of nonwhite groups.


The goal of the California model curriculum was to “honor ethnic studies as the academic field it is and honor students as young intellectuals” able to grasp complex concepts and language, said R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, a chair of the committee that wrote the draft and an ethnic studies teacher in the Los Angeles public school system.

The curriculum goes beyond ethnicity to talk about gender, class and many other forms of identity.

According to a glossary included with the documents, “hxrstory,” pronounced “herstory,” is history written from a gender-inclusive perspective. “Cisheteropatriarchy” is a system of power based on the dominance of straight men who are not transgender. “Accompliceship” is the process of building relationships grounded in trust and accountability with marginalized people and groups.

The public school student body of California is much more diverse than the teacher corps that would be tasked with adapting college-level concepts for the K-12 classroom. More than three-quarters of California students are nonwhite, but 62 percent of their teachers are white.

But the area of the draft curriculum that proved most divisive is how it treats Palestinians and Jews. Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in San Francisco, said that for too long, Arab-American issues had received short shrift in the curriculum.

Ethnic studies highlights activism against oppression, which is one reason the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement should be included, she said.

“You can’t talk about the Palestinian people without talking about the struggle against apartheid,” she said.

The California Legislative Jewish Caucus wrote a letter saying the draft lacks “meaningful discussion of anti-Semitism,” “singles out Israel for condemnation” and “denigrates Jews” using a narrative that “echoes the propaganda of the Nazi regime.”

The letter cites translated song lyrics included in one of the model lesson plans, in which a hip-hop artist raps, in Arabic, “For every free political prisoner, an Israeli colony is expanded. For each greeting, a thousand houses were demolished. They use the press so they can manufacture.”

The reference to the press, the letter says, is “a classic antisemitic trope about Jewish control of the media.”

Committee members, some of whom have received hate mail since the documents were posted online, said they were committed to fighting anti-Semitism, and were shocked by the responses from some Jewish organizations. They pointed out that Jewish studies is not usually included under the ethnic studies umbrella, and that California law already requires instruction on the Holocaust and genocide.

At least one Jewish organization, the Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, has released a statement in support of the curriculum materials.

The State Board of Education has distanced itself from the documents and promised revisions. On Wednesday, the elected state superintendent, Tony Thurmond, a Democrat, said the curriculum should go beyond the four groups traditionally included in college ethnic studies departments, to include Jews and others.

The backlash has some proponents of ethnic studies worried about losing momentum. They cite research showing that ethnic studies classes in San Francisco public schools helped students improve their attendance and grades.

But Mr. Medina, the Democratic assemblyman, said, “It is more important to me that we get it right than we do it quickly.”

When he taught ethnic studies classes in Riverside, east of Los Angeles, his goal was not to create activists, he added. “My goal as a teacher was to leave students who could think for themselves.”

Source: New York Times

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