Ethnic Studies Waffles in CA Public Schools

Ethnic Studies Waffles in CA Public Schools (Matt Hoffman via Unsplash)

Three years ago, the San Diego Unified school board, which serves 98,000 students, three-quarters of them POC, voted 4-0 to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement by 2022. 

San Diego’s vote reflects a wider push across the state: Fresno and Los Angeles would pass similar plans the following year. And in 2021, a year after vetoing a near-identical bill over concerns about prejudice in the model curriculum, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 101 to make the requirement statewide by 2030. California wants its students to understand race. Do they?

At the end of the 2021-22 school year, San Diego’s classes of 2024 and 2025 have experienced large-scale ethnic studies for the first time. And results are mixed.

A few teachers sit on the Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee, earnestly dedicated to developing new material in two-hour meetings every month. In March, they debated whether honors ethnic studies courses would perpetuate inequality. At Hoover High School, Sharon Apple asked her “Introduction to Ethnic Studies” class to reconsider their impressions of slavery after hearing about Native American slaves. They took tests on implicit bias. You’d be hard-pressed to find better examples of, as the district defines it, the “study of the perspectives, contributions, knowledge, and experiences of People of Color with a central focus on anti-racism.” 

But Hoover was one of two schools in the district to offer ethnic studies courses before this year, and “Introduction to Ethnic Studies” is an elective anyway. Most students are taking Identity and Relationships (IR), a replacement for 9th-grade English and the only ethnic studies course offered at seven of the 14 high schools with available course catalogs and the only option for freshmen at another four. This is no coincidence: as Erin Scalero, a Scripps Ranch teacher in Northeast San Diego, told me, “it was the easiest course to adapt and was a way of making sure all students meet the requirement.” Making it even easier, “[a]ll [instructor] training has been optional.”

“We do ethnic studies?” Laiba Farooqi, who takes IR at Scripps, asked. After a quick explanation on what ethnic studies was, she considered. “I guess I can see it. We did stuff about racism — lynchings and police violence — when we read ‘Black Boy,’ [the semi-autobiographical experience of a Black man in the 1920s Deep South,] and about the colonists and Igbo in ‘Things Fall Apart,’ [about 1890s Nigerian Christianization,] but it’s kind of fizzled out since then. We’re reading ‘Romeo and Juliet’ right now.” 

“Honestly, it’s just that we don’t read from a white author every now and then. Everything is the exact same, we just sometimes read an African author,” Andres Palacios, a Scripps sophomore taking Bullets of Truth (offered to 10th graders exclusively this year), remarked. “It’s fine.”

“I wouldn’t say the class is focused on race/ethnicity, but I feel like we have talked more about minorities in literature than in my other English classes,” one Patrick Henry freshman in IR, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “When we read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ we talked about whether a book about racism filtered through a White perspective should be taught, but I think we would’ve done that in regular English too.” 

Sophie Nguyen, another Henry freshman, agreed. “I feel like the class curriculum hasn’t changed much. It feels more race-focused than before, maybe? But, honestly, I think it’s natural to transition to larger topics and social issues by high school.” More positively, she added, “I appreciate some of the things we read, like ‘The Color of Water,’ [a memoir about a Black-Jewish interracial marriage in 1942,] which I probably never would’ve picked up on my own time.” Here, at least, the district has succeeded in expanding understanding.

With Apple’s class, it’s hard not to see the focus on institutional and historical racism. Was Nguyen’s class’ material enough to make what ethnic studies was clear? “I was under the impression that ethnic studies was a human anthropology thing,” she said. No, then. After hearing the definition, though, she did “see the attempt at anti-racism, but it’s mostly about BIPOC…I just wish there was more [non-Black] diversity. There’s a lot of stories to tell.” Theoretically, this could change with more training, but without a mandate, that’s unlikely.

In June 2021, a group of around two dozen parents gathered at SDUSD’s central office to protest a plan to expand ethnic studies and diversity efforts. “They say, ‘No, it’s ethnic studies,’ but it’s not. If you look into the curriculum itself, it teaches you your skin color is a problem. If you’re white, you’re the problem,” Jose Velasquez told Fox. The plan passed unanimously. 

Don’t worry, Mr. Velasquez. For most students, it’s just English class.

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