Orange County to explore tense issues over ethnic studies and race

July 21, 2021

A high school student listens to a presentation by his classmate.

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In March, after multiple drafts, the State Board of Education approved a voluntary framework for a high school ethnic studies course.

In late September, the Legislature will likely pass again — and Gov. Gavin Newsom this time will likely sign — legislation mandating that all students take a high school ethnic studies course to graduate.

Over the next week, two forums in Orange County will sharpen, but not resolve, a statewide debate over what should be in the course. Both events promise to be civil discussions that will deal straightforwardly with misperceptions over what ethnic studies is and isn’t.

The discussion will also include one contentious approach to teach it, critical race theory, which explains why racism remains ingrained in government institutions.

Both the Orange County Board of Education, which is hosting one of the forums, and Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares, who organized a separate event, outwardly say the more open discussion on ethnics studies, the better.

They dismiss the view that they are holding dueling forums. (Mijares is one of 13 members of EdSource’s board of directors, who have no influence or oversight on content. Editorial decisions remain under the sole control of the EdSource newsroom.)

“I have no idea what Al’s doing. I never had an opportunity to talk with him,” said longtime county education board member and family physician Ken Williams, who is organizing the event for the board. “He may have a different perspective on this. And some of that material may be part of what we incorporate into our meeting. So, OK.”

But the views expressed will differ at the two events, and, as the distorted national debate over critical race theory has shown, many discussions of ethnic studies descend into rhetoric.

The conservative-leaning county board, which has no authority over districts’ curriculum, is planning a lengthy, two-part critique of ethnic studies, from 6 to 9:30 p.m. on July 27 and Aug. 24. It will feature five speakers, most of whom are expected to question whether there’s a need for a separate ethnic studies course and to criticize the use of critical race theory and assumptions that racism is irreparable and ingrained.

The forums will include two law professors, Richard Henry Sander of UCLA, an opponent of affirmative action, and Maimon Schwarzchild of the University of San Diego,  who served in the Department of Justice under President Jimmy Carter, along with Walter Myers III, a conservative African American adjunct professor at Biola University, a religious college in La Mirada.

Theresa Montaño, a professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge, will be the contrarian. She was a co-chair of the first ethnic studies advisory committee that created the initial draft of the state’s model ethnic studies curriculum, which was rewritten. She disavowed what she considered the diluted version that the state board later adopted.

Mijares’ event, which the Orange County Department of Education is calling “With Liberty and Justice for All: A Colloquium on Ethnic Studies,” is scheduled at 2 p.m. on July 21. It will be a defense of ethnic studies and an exploration of what’s in the state’s model curriculum.

The eight speakers will include four Orange County superintendents whose districts already have ethnic studies courses or are planning to offer them or to integrate elements of ethnic students in other courses. Emily Penner, an education policy professor at UC Irvine and co-author of a much-cited study of the positive impact on San Francisco students who took an ethnic studies course, will join them.

While not accusing Mijares of upstaging the board, Williams and board President Mari Barke said he wasn’t transparent. Mijares announced the event several days after the last board meeting in early July, at which he failed to bring the forum to their attention, Williams said.

Mijares said the event is not a response to the board’s forums. “We knew we were going to do professional development on ethnic studies,” he said. “That is our sweet spot, and as the rhetoric started to intensify across the country, I felt it was important to set the record straight on what ethnic studies is and what was the state board approved.”

The county office had already planned an annual three-day training, so organizers included the forum as part of it, he said.

Ethnic studies covers the history, heritage and culture of minority groups whose contributions have been “long-overlooked” and whose struggles to gain rights and fight injustice have been “long silenced,” the model curriculum states. The intent, the curriculum says, is to build empathy and understanding and to empower students to see their stories reflected in what they study in school.

To distinguish it from multicultural studies, the Legislature stated in the law creating a model ethnic studies curriculum that it must include the four groups associated with the founding of the ethnic studies movement at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley in the late 1960s: African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans.

The state board agreed that they should be the focus of an ethnic studies course while allowing districts to incorporate the stories of other groups reflective of their communities. Much of the debate over two years of drafts involved which ethnic and religious groups were included and whether they were treated fairly — even though districts can pick which groups to include and how to discuss them.

In an overheated national debate, ethnic studies has become melded with critical race theory, which in some circles has become synonymous with white suppression, white privilege and reverse racism. It has become a wedge issue.

The website mediamatters.org reports that Fox News mentioned CRT, as it’s known, 1,900 times in less than four months. Education Week reports that as of July 15, eight states have passed laws that would ban critical race theory or limit what schools can teach about racism; half of the states in the country have introduced or taken some similar action.

Critical race theory actually is a legal theory introduced 40 years ago to understand how implicit and explicit racism is baked into government and community institutions, despite landmark laws banning discrimination. Some scholars and others cite it to explain disparities of wealth, exclusionary zoning, redlining and states’ current efforts to change voting laws to disenfranchise Blacks and Latinos.

And it’s only mentioned once in California’s adopted ethnic studies model curriculum, as one of several “key theoretical frameworks and pedagogies that can be used in ethnic studies research and instruction.” (Page 18 of Chapter 3 – Instructional Guidance for K12).

An internal struggle among advocates

The debate over ethnic studies in California is different from that in other states and has shifted since the state board’s vote in March. On one side are thousands of teachers and students who want districts to adopt the original ethnic studies curriculum that Montaño and others drafted.

On the other are Newsom, State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond, who indicated the draft was biased, activist and inaccurate, and ethnic groups who felt overlooked and slighted. The Jewish Legislative Caucus saw hints of anti-Semitism and a slanted view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What has become an internal debate among advocates of ethnic studies will unfold in the coming months and years, as districts determine what ethnic studies and racial justice lessons look like.

The proponents of the first draft have rallied around the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Institute, which instructs teachers to teach a version that departs from the model framework. Some of its leaders are consultants who have guided districts in writing their curriculums in Salinas and Hayward. They have strong support among United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing about 30,000 teachers.

It’s the rise of what Williams calls the “absolutists” — those who wrote the first draft and then disavowed the compromise ethnic studies curriculum — that concerns him, he said. “The most offensive is the politics of identity, which is sewn throughout all of the fabric of ethnic studies. We should acknowledge if you want to talk about post-colonialism and its negative impact upon Indigenous people; that’s a reasonable academic study.” But he said he objects to an assumption that “because of your skin color and your race, you are oppressed in this white supremacist country.”

“So the question is what was adopted and passed by the state board? What actually can school districts create as far as a curriculum?” Williams said. He expects districts’ curriculum will range from the “hard-core liberated” models to little more than curriculums that stress “anti-bullying.”

Michael Matsuda, superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, said that the district has offered ethnic studies for five years as a dual-enrollment course with community college credit with “no blowback from the community.”

“It creates a more inclusive view of American history,” he said. Ethnic studies has a personal significance; his mother was in high school when she was hauled off to an internment camp for Japanese Americans in 1942.

Now the district is considering working elements of ethnic studies into visual arts, AVID courses that teach college skills and other courses that enable students to get ethnic studies credit. The district has created an ethnic studies advisory committee whose members include advocates for the first draft – Jose Lara, a vice principal who has been an ethnic studies activist, and Carolyn Torres, a teacher who’s also a Santa Ana Unified board member.

“I would say no, we’re not going back to the controversial draft,” Matsuda said.

Mijares said he blamed national “talking heads with influence” for encouraging people to believe that the country is moving toward becoming a socialist state and “the perception that the school system is indoctrinating students.”

But, in a sense, agreeing with Williams, he said, “To create more division and measure all on the basis of race and ethnicity, that would be an injustice in and of itself. Our only role is to teach what the state created.”

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