Columns
May 30, 2020
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California Focus

Thomas D. Elias
Get ready for another ethnic studies battle
April 3, 2020

None of the myriad documents prepared by state agencies last year came close to generating the conflict and heated emotions of a proposed new ethnic studies curriculum for public schools put forward by the state Board of Education and California’s Department of Education.

Expect a new battle on this subject soon.

The end result of last year’s kerfluffle was that the plan went back to the drawing board. A draft of a purported new plan will be released later this spring, barring coronavirus-related delays, with public input to follow and the aim of getting approval by the state board next fall for use during the 2021-22 school year.

Good luck with that schedule. The way it seems to be shaping up indicates the new ethnic studies program will strongly resemble the old one, which drew fire for ignoring the contributions and problems of many ethnic groups, including Jewish Americans, Armenian Americans and some other significant groups.

This happened in part because the rejected draft divided all Californians into four basic ethnic identities: African-Americans, whites, Hispanic Americans and Asians/Pacific Islanders (as if – for one example – it makes any sense to toss Chinese Americans and Samoan Americans into the same pot).

The rejected curriculum was essentially a litany of complaints. Perhaps that was because academics who subscribe to a field of studies known as “critical ethnic studies” dominated the volunteer committee that helped shape it.

Several websites describe the guiding question explored by the Critical Ethnic Studies Association as this: “How do the histories of colonialism and conquest, racial chattel slavery and white supremacist patriarchies…affect, inspire and unsettle scholarship in the present?”

That pretty much means ethnic studies thinking is dominated by negatives, with little use for the positive contributions of the 80-plus ethnic groups that live side-by-side in California.

But critical ethnic studies has essentially been the background for shaping both the failed ethnic studies draft and the upcoming new effort.

 Said Theresa Montano, an ethnic studies professor at Cal State Northridge, “Racism has played a critical role in America and California. There’s a dominant white culture and then the others.” Might the cause of that last be the fact this nation was founded principally by Europeans?

No informed American denies that slavery played a major role in the nation’s history. So did the cheap labor of Chinese and other immigrants, including the Irish, Jews and Hispanics. There’s also no arguing that Native Americans suffered enormously.

All this belongs in public school curricula. But so do the positive contributions of European colonists and other immigrants who together made this the most successful nation planet Earth ever saw, both economically and, often, in living out democratic ideals.

But anyone who expects the new draft to focus on the positive much more than the previous, rejected version probably should guess again.

In an update early this year, state Schools Supt. Tony Thurmond said “Our recommendations will acknowledge and honor the four foundational groups” at the core of critical ethnic studies. That will lump Jews, Armenians, Irish, and all other Caucasian hyphenated Americans together with whites in general. It likely means anti-Semitism and the Armenian genocide, for two examples, would be downplayed next to racism and the interning of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Each of these subjects deserves separate, substantial study. But it can’t happen when there are “four foundational groups” and everyone else goes into some kind of sub-group. It’s like the major leagues vs. the minors, or like network television vs. something streamed on YouTube.

Essentially, the Critical Ethnic Studies Assn. advocates focusing on communities of color and not giving much attention to others, no matter how central their role in American history and no matter how severe a persecution they may have suffered.

So there will likely be no notation, for example, that Portuguese-Americans were central to building the state’s strongest-in-the-world agriculture industry.

Sure, the new draft will eliminate most of the little-used words that dotted the first version, like cisheteropatriarchy (a male-dominated system) or hxrstory (pronounced the same as herstory and supposedly more inclusive than “history”). But the general thrust likely won’t differ much from last year’s effort, which means this one likely won’t fly, either.

 

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net