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The politics of mandating Ethnic Studies in ‘Trumpian’ times


Even for those paying very close attention, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signing of AB 101 three months ago is something that slipped through many informational cracks. It was the culmination of a very long and contentious battle in the state’s public education arena for Ethnic Studies, as a specific course or series of courses, to become a regular part of the required California public school curriculum.

Rather famously, there had been a giant brouhaha in 2019-2020 involving complaints, mainly from Jewish constituents, over supposed racism included in the state’s first major attempt at producing a Unified Model Ethnic Studies Curriculum for California. In fact, many observers had concluded that the whole project had been fatally wounded in that bare-knuckled fight and left so severely wounded on the legislative floor that it would never see the light of day again.

But like Lazarus rising from the grave, it stood up again. On a Friday in October of 2021, Newson signed into law the legislation that made California the first state in the USA to require all its students to complete at least a single one-semester course in ethnic studies in order to earn a California high school diploma.

That state mandate goes into effect with the graduating class of 2029-30.  Before that, state high schools must begin offering credible Ethnic Studies courses no later than the 2025-26 school year.

Authored by Assemblyman Jose Medina, (D-Riverside), AB 101 was meant to end what had been a fierce 10-year fight over how to produce a state curriculum that would more closely encapsulate the history, culture and struggles of California’s diverse populations and their contributions to what California has become.

The model curriculum accepted along with the law (the curriculum is not mandated) for the state focuses on four principal ethnic and racial groups whose history and stories have been traditionally overlooked or disregarded in public classroom lessons and texts: African-Americans, Latinos (now, Latinx), Native-Americans and Asian-Americans. This model curriculum also encourages schools to include discussions on the ethnic heritage and the legacies of other students in their communities, including specifically, Sikh, Jewish, Arab and Armenian-Americans. This was an amendment to the first, contested model curriculum added after representatives from those groups objected strenuously to being left out of the earlier drafts and discussions.

The earlier model curriculum debated into the ground a few years ago (which Newsom had labeled, “insufficiently balanced and not sufficiently inclusive”) and which was criticized by others as “too doctrinaire, ideological and discriminatory towards Israeli Jews,” has not gone away or died. Instead, it has been rebranded by the academics who championed it and is now called the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. It now has an educational institute in Southern California to advocate it. The Salinas Unified School district and Hayward Unified are two of the school districts that have already adopted it, and since school districts can pick and choose any ethnic studies curriculum they want (the Legislature has no authority to prescribe districts’ curricula), the game of ethnic provision of knowledge continues.

The story could stop there. However, the Los Angeles Unified School District, in 2020, passed its own Ethnic Studies mandate for schools under its jurisdiction. Advocated strongly by Dr. George McKenna of District 1 and written and moved by member Kelly Gonez, in August, 2020, the L.A. School Board passed a ground-breaking resolution to “expand Ethnic Studies classes and content throughout all grade levels and establish the completion of one Ethnic Studies course as a high school graduation requirement.” Gonez said,  “This resolution is centered on the principle that every child in our district deserves an education that tells their story, that reflects their identity, and that challenges us all to tear down the systems of oppression, racism, anti-Blackness, anti-indigeneity, and White supremacy that have stained the legacy of our country.”

The resolution also calls for the District to integrate Ethnic Studies into the Pre K-8 curricula and institutes an ethnic studies graduation requirement for all seniors in the district, starting with the 2022 or 2023 school year. The board resolution also directs the superintendent to secure instructional materials in all grade levels that would include texts written by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) contributors. That issue has been a major vocal concern in the state for at least the last 20 years.

So, as Texas, Florida and other states twist themselves into knots to deny academic inclusion to Americans who have helped create and build what we all have in this country, California seems focused on another, more proper, path.

For that, we are thankful.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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