By Peter C. Herman
Now that public outrage has forced the retraction of the K-12 ethnic studies curriculum proposal because it contained way too much jargon (e.g., “cisheteropatriarchy,” “hxrstory,” and “accompliceship”), leftish propaganda, and the exclusion of such ethnic groups as Jews and Indian-Americans, we still have another problem to deal with: former San Diego State University Professor Shirley Weber‘s Assembly Bill 2408. This legislation would make an ethnic studies course a graduation requirement for the California State University system.
To be sure, this bill is much less incendiary than the K-12 curriculum, and its justification is hard to argue with: “Studies have found that both students of color and white students benefit academically as well as socially from taking ethnic studies courses. Ethnic studies courses play an important role in building an inclusive multicultural democracy.” Who doesn’t want that?
But there are two equally serious problems with this bill. First, like the retracted K-12 curriculum, this bill’s definition of diversity is remarkably un-diverse: “Ethnic studies are an interdisciplinary and comparative study of race and ethnicity with special focus on four historically defined racialized core groups: Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latina and Latino Americans.” Without in any way meaning to underestimate the degree of bias and historical trauma faced by these four groups, the sad fact is, they are not the only ones who have to deal with racism.
There is just no excuse, for example, for omitting Jews and the Jewish experience in the United States. Supposedly, Jews are excluded from the ethnic studies because they are a “successful, model minority” (a stereotype often applied to Asians, with sometimes devastating results) and do not face significant bias in contemporary America.
This view ignores the long history of anti-Semitism in American history. To give but two random examples, in a 1938 radio broadcast that reached over 30 million people, Father Edward Coughlin said, “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.” And the price for situating a University of California campus in La Jolla was ending the restrictive covenants that prevented Jews from buying houses in that tony enclave.
But you do not need the past to prove the point. The Anti-Defamation League reports a dramatic rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States: “The 2018 total is 48% higher than the number of incidents in 2016 and 99% higher than in 2015.” 2018 witnessed the deadliest attack on Jews in American history: the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Massacre, in which a white supremacist killed 11 elderly worshippers. Earlier in 2019, another white supremacist invaded the Chabad of Poway synagogue, and only a jammed gun prevented a massive loss of life. An Ohio man, again a white supremacist, was recently arrested for posting a video threatening to shoot up the Youngstown Jewish Family Community Center.
Under the ethnic studies proposal for the CSU, students might learn about anti-Black racism, anti-Latinx racism, the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War 2, or Andrew Jackson and the “Trail of Tears.” But not about the constant presence of anti-Semitism in American culture and, in fact, throughout the world. That is just bizarre.
Nor are Jews the only excluded ethnic group. Arabic peoples are also absent, which means, for example, that studying the effects of Trump’s immigration policies on the refugee population in San Diego would not fulfill this requirement. And what about the myriad other ethnic identities, such as the Rohingya and the Uighurs?
The focus of Ethnic Studies on four particular groups originated in the 1960s. It is past time to update ethnic studies to reflect the 21st century and much more recent developments. Consider the absurdity of an ethnic studies graduation requirement that excludes looking at the recent rise of white supremacy, which, remember, is explicitly anti-Semitic. Or on the migrant crisis in Europe and the accompanying rise in ethno-nationalism. That is hardly compatible with comprehending “the diversity and social justice history of the United States.”
Then there’s a second, equally compelling reason why this bill should be shelved: precedent. It is a very bad idea to allow the legislature a say in curricular matters. Right now, Democrats have a supermajority in the California Legislature, and so, the assumption goes, left-leaning and progressive legislation should be passed. But there is no guarantee that a more conservative majority might not take power sometime in the future, one that has very different ideas about what students in the California State University system should study.
It’s fair to say that Democrats cheered when then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid eliminated the filibuster for most presidential appointments. Then the Senate changed hands. Look how that turned out.
I understand why an ethnic studies graduation requirement might seem like a good idea. The resurgence of racism, including anti-Semitism, is deeply frightening, and we must do whatever we can to stop it. But the definition of ethnic studies in AB 2408 is far too narrow, and allowing the Legislature to determine graduation requirements sets a terrible precedent that I can just about guarantee we will live to regret.
If the bill reaches Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk, he should veto it.
Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He is an expert on Shakespeare and Milton, and is author of the new book Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpower Plot to 9/11.
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