California is on the verge of making a significant shift in its education policy, as the state assembly passed a bill that would create a model ethnic studies curriculum that school districts would have the option of adopting. As the Huffington Post reported, the move is hailed as a victory for educators and activists who say the measure will increase the educational achievement, critical thinking and problem solving skills among Black and Brown students.
The original legislation called for mandatory ethnic studies for all high schools, but was amended to reduce cost, in a state in which 75 percent of the public school students are children of color. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) as a reaction to conservatives shutting down ethnic studies programs in Arizona, received bipartisan support, though all votes in opposition in the lower house were Republican. The legislation already passed the state senate, and awaits a signature from Gov. Jerry Brown (D), should he approve of the bill. According to The Atlantic, five California school districts have required ethnic studies, while 11 others offer it as an elective.
In a nation where Black and Brown children are becoming a majority, such developments serve as a countermeasure to years of brainwashing, in which children were taught that history was based on the superiority of white achievement, and people of a darker hue simply did not matter. This process of brainwashing has taken a tremendous psychological toll on Black children and others not of the dominant white culture, who grow up unaware of their own history and the importance of their own people.
In 2010, conservative lawmakers in Arizona passed a state law forbidding courses that are “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” and advocate “resentment toward a race or class of people” or “the overthrow of the United States government.” Officials used the law to cancel a Mexican-American studies curriculum in Tucson that rightwing whites claimed politicized students and taught them to hate white people. The battle over Tucson ethnic studies will go to federal court in 2016.
“If we are really serious about preparing our students for jobs in the 21st century and to be successful in college, we have to have a high school curriculum that reflects the diversity of all our populations,” Alejo told the Huffington Post.
However, some educators opposed the bill.
“I think this is a well-intentioned bill, but it has the potential to hurt children,” said Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, a Republican and former principal who opposed the bill. “The only way to make sure our children are successful in a world economy is to stress math and science.”
The ethnic studies movement grew out of the civil rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, during which time Black people and people of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Asian and Native American descent came into a period of self-awareness and political consciousness. It reflected a struggle by Black and Brown students against eurocentrism and white racial hegemony in education, and a curriculum which undervalued their people and rendered them invisible. The movement began on the campus of San Francisco State University, when the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF)–which included the Black Student Union, Latin American Students Organization, Asian American Political Alliance, Filipino American Collegiate Endeavor, and Native American Students Union—waged a student strike and demanded the establishment of a School of Ethnic Studies. Another, more violent strike took place the following year at the University of California at Berkeley.
Meanwhile, as white students at predominantly white campuses protested against the Vietnam War, students at historically Black colleges and universities were concerned their institutions were merely preparing them to become acceptable to white America, and questioned whether these schools were relevant in addressing the needs of the community. At Howard University, students took over the school administration building in 1968, and demanded a Black university president and a department of Afro-American history and culture. The Howard protests accelerated the growth of the national Black Studies and Black Student Union movements.
“The field arose historically from the connections made by peoples of color in the U.S. with peoples of the Third World and their struggles against colonization and neo-colonization,” said Columbia University professor Gary Okihiro of the ethnic studies movement, in a commentary in the Columbia Spectator. “Because crude caricatures of the field abound, I am compelled to stress that ethnic studies is not multiculturalism, identity politics, or intellectual affirmative action. Not an act of charity, ethnic studies was gained through contestation. As was astutely observed by Frederick Douglass, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’”
The latest news in California is encouraging, depending on how such curriculum is developed, and provided there is an inclusive process in which Black nationalists and other educators are a part of the process. People who do not know from whence they came have no idea of where they are going.