Ethnic Studies Courses Break Down Barriers and Benefit Everyone—So Why the Resistance?

As cities incorporate curricula that deconstruct stereotypes and negative assumptions about race, advocates say everyone wins. Others argue they just promote resentment.
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Students raise their fists in solidarity with four students on a hunger strike to defend the funding of the San Francisco State University of Ethnic Studies. Photo by Melissa Minton / Flickr.

Last year Mackenzie Martinez, who’s Mexican American, asked her U.S. history teacher about the roles Asian and Hispanic Americans played in the civil rights movement. She was told Hispanic people had no role in the movement because they were not in the U.S at the time. Months later, while reviewing the curriculum of a Los Angeles ethnic studies course, Martinez learned that Hispanics had, in fact, been involved in the civil rights movement.

Now a senior at The Center School in Seattle, Martinez says she feels robbed of her education by not being taught the contributions and history of different groups of people.

“All I ever learned about was Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks—that’s the extent of my cultural education,” she says. “America is a melting pot, so we shouldn’t have to ignore the other ingredients.”

“America is a melting pot, so we shouldn’t have to ignore the other ingredients.”

The NAACP’s Seattle chapter is working to change that with a resolution that would insert ethnic studies into the city’s public schools. Because Seattle Public Schools faces a debt of $74 million, the proposal doesn’t ask for the creation of new ethnic studies courses, but instead the incorporation of ethnic studies into existing courses—such as history, math, and language and comprehension—by relating course materials to diverse backgrounds.

The support for ethnic studies programs in public schools is spreading throughout the nation. In Texas, Senate Hispanic Caucus Chair Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, is leading a bill that would require the state’s board of education to develop ethnic studies as elective courses for middle and high school students. A similar proposal in Santa Fe, New Mexico, would ensure that students have the option to take ethnic studies as a social studies elective.

Meanwhile, other cities are already adopting ethnic studies curricula in their public schools. In Portland, Oregon, the school board voted in May to offer high school ethnic studies classes that will focus on the history, culture, and social movements of people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ communities, starting in 2018. In 2014, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and El Rancho, California, voted to make ethnic studies courses a graduation requirement; last year, a state law was signed requiring the state board of education to create an ethnic studies program for all high schools by 2019. And nearly 12 years ago, Philadelphia implemented an African American history course as a graduation requirement, making it the longest-running ethnic studies program in public schools.

Why the need for ethnic studies courses?

Seattle Public Schools is the largest K-12 school system in Washington, with about 52,000 students in 97 schools. And although more than 40 percent of its students identify as races or ethnicities other than white, the curriculum taught is through a Eurocentric prism.

“I talked to a lot of these students and one of the things they tell me is that they don’t see themselves in the curriculum,” says Rita Green, Seattle/King County NAACP education chair. “We need to add the contributions of all cultures. If students aren’t learning it in schools, [in many cases] they won’t learn it at all.”

Green also mentioned that Seattle has one of the greatest disparities in academic achievement between students of color and white students—particularly between African American and white students. A recent study from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education found that ethnic studies courses improved the academic performance and attendance of high school students at risk of dropping out.

“They don’t see themselves in the curriculum.”

Green says everyone, regardless of race and ethnicity, benefits from taking ethnic studies because they aim to promote understanding of cultures and experiences while at the same time strive to deconstruct negative stereotypes and assumptions about different groups of people, thus strengthening relationships among people of different cultures.

But opponents of ethnic studies believe such courses create the opposite effect. In 2010, a Mexican American studies program was banned by an Arizona state law—introduced by Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, the former superintendent of public instruction—which made it illegal for public schools to teach classes: promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government; promoting resentment toward a race or class of people; or designed primarily for pupils of one ethnic group, or advocating ethnic solidarity. If any district is found in violation of the new law, the Arizona Department of Education can withhold 10 percent of its state funding. In January, legislation that would have expanded the ban to colleges and universities failed to pass through the House Education Committee.

“None of those accusations are founded in research,” says Jon Greenberg, a 12th-grade humanities instructor at The Center School. “I wonder how many of those people who make those accusations have actually taken an ethnic studies course.”

In 2013, Greenberg, who helped draft the NAACP’s proposal, received direct backlash from the family of one of his students for discussing race, class and gender in his class. The course was canceled and Greenberg was transferred to another school (he was reinstated in 2014). Greenberg says an official ethnic studies program will protect teachers for teaching about race.

“Ethnic studies programs do what public schools consistently fail to do—which is serve all students,” Greenberg says. “And if the research shows that they are working, why aren’t we doing them? It makes no sense.”

What does an ethnic studies course look like?

Ingrid Fey teaches a ninth-grade college-prep ethnic studies course at Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, where she focuses on the specific experiences of African Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanas/Chicanos, and Latinas/Latinos, and Native Americans.

The course is broken into six units: The first two units explore how personal identity is shaped by factors like gender, ethnicity, and race, and how, despite the concept of race having no biological baring, members of society have been negatively affected by racial stereotypes; the third explores multicultural contributions to the nation’s development; the fourth explores how language, education, and culture are powerful mechanisms for creating and oppressing racial and ethnic identities; and the fifth teaches how society traditions, rituals, and rules can both empower and disempower key groups in society. In the final unit, Fey discusses civic engagement and the tools students have at their disposal to fix real-world problems.

“We do our students a disservice when we don’t teach them American history through multicultural lessons.”

At the end of each section, students complete both an assignment relevant to the unit—such as writing college application essays wherein they explain how the world in which they live has shaped their individual identities—and a group project that counteracts the dominant historical narrative of the nation.

“We do our students a disservice when we don’t teach them American history through multicultural lessons,” Fey says. “I tell my students that we’re going to raise a lot of questions but we’re not going to answer them all.” Their course includes an open discussion, she says, without a particular agenda. “I think my students appreciate that.”

Since 2015, Washington state has required all schools to teach a Native American course called “Since Time Immemorial,” which has been endorsed by 29 federally recognized tribes in the state. The course has three different curricula for elementary, middle, and high school students, respectively.

The NAACP and Greenberg believe the next logical step is to create a curriculum that teaches about the rest of America’s diverse cultures. The current resolution is under consideration by the board of education’s Curriculum and Instruction Policy Committee.

In the meantime, Martinez plans to take an ethnic studies course once she graduates high school and heads off to college.

Greenberg says, “You shouldn’t have to wait until college to take ethnic studies courses. Because these programs help keep people in school, so the people who will benefit from these courses might not make it to college to take an ethnic studies course.”