Entrance to the California Department of Education in Sacramento
Entrance to the California Department of Education in Sacramento. State photo

By Joe Nalven

Do you see yourself as an X, a Y or a Z? Or perhaps an XZ?

Such is the dilemma of many universities: how do you teach about X, Y and Z or XZ? Create a department: A department of Asian studies; a department of Jewish studies; a department of Black studies; Chicano studies; Arabic studies; Latin American studies. And so on.

Here in California, the Department of Education is struggling with a kaleidoscopic set of identities.The state has more than 1,000 school districts and over 6 million enrolled primary and secondary school students. Hispanic students represent about 54%; White students, 22%; Asian, 9%; Black students, 5%; two or more races not Hispanic, nearly 4%; Filipino, 2%.

Currently, the proposed curriculum for ethnic studies is in its third review with public comments due soon. Having participated in a detailed review for parts of this curriculum, I would be the first to acknowledge the challenges for both the public and the Department of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission.

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Somewhat troubling is the perspective of State Superintendent of Education Tony Thurmond when he launched the public review process: “Our schools have not always been a place where students can gain a full understanding of the contributions of people of color … our country has exploited, marginalized, and oppressed them.”

If we take Thurmond at his word, the ethnic studies curriculum will not take the student’s own sense of identity as the pedagogical starting point; instead, an ideological framework will be imposed on students in these classes: you have been exploited, marginalized and oppressed — at least those who are defined as people of color.

To be sure, America has had its oppressive history, much like most countries in the world. However, for the more than 25% of California’s immigrant population, America has been a beacon of opportunity, both for freedom from oppression as well as economic advancement. Would these immigrants have come to America if they actually heard and believed Tony Thurmond?

Thurmond’s mindset expresses a major flaw in this curriculum — critical race theory. Its premise is that America’s institutions are dominated by “white people to further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of color.”

That mindset is carried over into the very first footnote to the Preface to the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum about race. “The People of Color Power movements that emerged in the 1960s (“Black Power, Red Power, Brown Power, Yellow Power”) are key examples of how race has also been embraced and leveraged in the resistance against racism; they are the movements that Ethnic Studies rose from. In the United States today, races very broadly break down as people of color and white people.”

Was this perspective historically true? In large part, yes. Is it still true today? Probably much less so. The result of orienting the curriculum from a critical race theory perspective is being locked into the past with a poor understanding of how identity is actually constructed and reconstructed, especially in a dramatically changing social context as well as for the large number of immigrants who do not understand this configuration of racial identity.

The changes required to the proposed curriculum — if it is to be fair to history and the actual student population — are fairly simple. Delete the critical race theory that seeks to impose an ideology of race on students and substitute a few changes in the preface that will orient all the curriculum.

The curriculum‘s second objective presents the first opportunity for constructive change:

(2) be written in language that is inclusive and supportive of multiple users, including teachers (single and multiple-subject), support staff, administrators, and the community, and 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.

What needs to be changed to lift our students into a positive sense of self while at the same time being realistic about both the past and changes since then?

First, some background grounding in how critical race theory is taught. The emphasis is on the narratives, parables, stories, and chronicles. As a cultural anthropologist, I find such an approach familiar yet the question is whether such stories illuminate the frequent tension in the community that is characterized by different narratives; moreover, the same individual may tell different narratives over many months. Second, survey information is extremely useful, where possible, as a corrective to preemptive metaphors.

Isabel Wilkerson, in her book Caste, offers a personal and poignant story about her encounter with two DEA agents after she landed at the Detroit airport. She saw herself as singled out because of her color. The short encounter left an impact and would serve as a moment for students to reflect upon:

When you are raised middle class and born to a subordinated caste in general, and African-American in particular, you are keenly aware of the burden you carry and you know that working twice as hard is a given. But more important, you know there will be no latitude for a misstep, so you must try to be virtually perfect at all times merely to tread water. You live with the double standard even though you do not like it. You know growing up that you cannot get away with the things that your white friends might skate by with—adolescent pranks or shoplifting on a dare or cursing out a teacher. You knew better, even if you were so inclined, which I wasn’t and never have been.

Everyone’s story is truly their story. In a teaching setting, it would be a moment to have students recount their moments with others, perhaps with law enforcement or perhaps with any others in authority. Some stories may reflect help that authorities provided that would be equally dramatic. Counterbalancing such stories are important to offset selection bias.

An objection might be raised that people of color experience negative encounters far more often than whites. But that raises the question of statistics.

If we continue with Wilkerson’s analysis in the very personal arena of marriage, we can see how a statistical framework can alter one’s perception of the past and the present.

Wilkerson notes that “forty-one of the fifty states passed [anti-miscegenation] laws.” This is one of the pillars of caste that she identifies. In 1958, her analysis would have meshed with the general attitude against interracial marriage.

However, Wilkerson’s analysis is over fifty years out of date. She fails to mention the major Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia (1967), that overturned all anti-miscegenation laws. Moreover, a recent Gallup poll found “87% of Americans now favor marriage between blacks and whites, up from 4% in 1958.” Interracial marriages have gone up five times the number in 1967. The law changed, behavior changed and attitudes were revolutionized.

Does this changed history of race attitudes negate Wilkerson’s personal narrative? No, of course not. However, this juxtaposition of narrative and statistics illuminates that a pedagogy is needed to present the many and conflicting understandings of where America is and is not in terms of race. An understanding of progress must be included.

So here is how the curriculum’s second objective might be rewritten to aim towards a more useful pedagogy. Statistical understanding should complement narrative; progress in attitudes and behaviors need to be inserted. Bigotry can be deleted since it is already embedded in racism and the quest for equality.

(2) be written in language, BOTH NARRATIVE AND STATISTICAL,  that is inclusive and supportive of multiple users, including teachers (single and multiple-subject), support staff, administrators, and the community, and 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, bigotry, indigeneity, AS WELL AS PROGRESS TOWARDS INTERRACIAL ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOR. etc.

This suggested change includes recognition of the social progress that has taken place in the past half century, including the views of Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama., which are inspiring to all of America.

With these changes, the proposed curriculum can be revised in like fashion and can succeed in the goal of encouraging cultural understanding.

If you would like to send in your views on the curriculum, use the following email: ethnicstudies@cde.ca.gov.

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