High school class
A high school class. File photo

We can all sympathize with California’s legislation calling for an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum in schools.

One key objective stated in the preface to this model curriculum is to “encourage cultural understanding of how different groups have struggled and worked together, highlighting core ethnic studies concepts such as equality and equity, justice, race and racism, ethnicity and bigotry, indigeneity, etc.”

Yet how can such an objective be achieved if concepts such as freedom, liberty and integration are not even mentioned in this preface?

I was tasked to evaluate sample lessons in Appendix B that focused on African American studies. The examples chosen for students centered on two concerns ─ one area was about housing discrimination and redlining; the other area was the Black Lives Matter movement and its concern for racial profiling and police brutality.

I did a quick count of terms to get a sense of direction in the curriculum:  Race, 13 times; Racism, 8 times; Equity, 9 times; Equality 12 times; Discrimination 15 times. What about other terms that underscore the attraction to millions of immigrants, including from Africa and the Caribbean over the last twenty years?Liberty is mentioned 0 times and Freedom 1 time, but only in a footnote in reference to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Opportunity is mentioned 11 times, but for a lack of economic opportunity or the possibility of learning ─ and not as a rationale for what America means to major portions of citizens and immigrants.

If the sample Ethnic Studies lessons are meant to “encourage cultural understanding of how different groups have struggled and worked together,” the terminology suggests that something is radically missing. Clearly, a simple word count is not meant to substitute for a more rounded analysis of the sample lessons. But it ought to pique your interest.

Having taught cultural anthropology for many years in San Diego, and having focused on the broad array of cultures in the United States ─ and not just those of European or African heritage ─ I champion a well-rounded analysis. This is important. We need to avoid ethnocentrism here In our own multiplicity of cultures as well as those we encounter in other parts of the world.

With this in mind, let us take a closer look at redlining in housing and about police brutality. I am purposefully avoiding a direct analysis of the Black Lives Matter movement since it is too charged in media and partisanship to garner what is important ─ a possible consensus on how this model curriculum should be evaluated. The focus on the two subject areas are sufficient to give us an appreciation of how the Ethnic Studies curriculum will be taught. And that is what is critical to how future generations are being shaped and guided to clear-headed civic responsibility.


The model curriculum lesson states at lines 370-371 “This lesson introduces students to the process of purchasing a home, while addressing the history of U.S. housing discrimination. Students will learn about redlining.”

Of course, there was housing discrimination and the banks helped enforce that practice by drawing a line around certain residential areas. That was redlining and is useful for students to learn about. However, does the lesson examine that practice after years of legislation and litigation to end redlining?

The inclusion of other voices, such as Thomas Sowell, would complete the analysis, make it well-rounded, and show that social change is not only possible, but has been accomplished in many ways. Yes, more can be done, but positive social change should be cited and applauded. An honest assessment moves beyond ideology of racism and discrimination to engage with actual facts and context, and not just an emphasis on selective narratives.

Sowell recently analyzed the issue of housing discrimination and redlining and found that while redlining was real, a deeper statistical analysis would show that debt-to income-ratios, job history, and differences between national versus local banking practices also played a part.

We may need a more radical approach to social change, more than an allegation of prejudice. A “radicalism” that is not progressive or conservative politics, not a Democrat or a Republican mindset. That kind of radicalism is absent from a narrow framing of Ethnic Studies.

Police Brutality

Returning to the model curriculum, we read at lines 610-611: “Students will be exposed to contemporary discussions around policing in the U.S., specifically police brutality cases where unarmed African Americans have been killed.”

The lesson itself should begin with a question:  What is the importance of police in a community? Then, the question becomes whether policing works that way and, if not, why not. Instead, the model curriculum begins with the assumption of politic brutality. That’s a partisan agenda and does not encourage community understanding.

A dispassionate analysis is called for in designing a curriculum to encourage all parts of the American community to engage. If the curriculum focuses largely on the narratives of specific incidents, the students will be unable to discern the bad apples (which there are) from the barrel itself. There is a history marked with social change in policing practices. Moreover, a statistical analysis challenges the notion that policing is centered on unarmed African Americans.

A Black journalist, Jason Riley, adds a voice missing from the model curriculum. Riley explores the question of police bias based on the research by Harvard economist Roland Fryer:

“Given the current nationwide protests and mob violence ignited by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it’s a subject on the minds of many.

“In 2016 Mr. Fryer released a study of racial differences in police use of deadly force. To the surprise of the author, as well as many in the media and on the left who take racist law enforcement as a given, he found no evidence of bias in police shootings. His conclusions have been echoed by researchers at the University of Maryland and Michigan State University, who in a paper released last year wrote: ‘We didn’t find evidence for anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparity in police use of force across all shootings, and, if anything, found anti-White disparities when controlling for race-specific crime.’”

Just as with the issue of redlining, compelling narratives need to be joined with carefully designed statistical studies. Not as the end of an important discussion, but the beginning of one. The Ethnic Studies model fails to open up this discussion to multiple voices across academic and community perspectives.

There is a further problem. Given that we are not a perfect society, and that much work needs to be done, how do we move forward? One of the premises of social justice is based on a logical fallacy. One can assume correctly that “if there is prejudice, that there will be disparity.”

However, it is illogical to affirm the consequent. That is, it is a fallacy to assert that “if there is disparity, then there is prejudice.” Disparity in income, in educational achievement, in housing and the like can be for many reasons outside of prejudice. And that fallacy is not addressed in this model curriculum. The assumption is that the one key factor is prejudice.

This can be seen in the expectation of how we identify as individuals. Tiger Woods provides a meaningful example. He says he is a “Cablanasian,” having four grandparents from four different heritages ─ Caucasian, Black, Native American and Asian. To pick one is to deny the other three.

The assumption of the Ethnic Studies model is to truncate our self-identity into the narrowest of frameworks. That may make sense when America had severe institutional racism or when racists are encountered; but that is not all America, that is not where America has evolved, and that is not where America is headed ─ unless we are steeped in the ideology of a truncated Ethnic Studies curriculum being offered in this model.

The California model curriculum has failed to “encourage cultural understanding.” Instead, students will be taught with a myopic perspective, an agenda skewed by fallacy, about victimhood. Our students deserve the whole story of ethnicity in America.

Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.