Still Fighting for Ethnic Studies in California

California Ethnic Studies Update

The california board of education (cbe) is attempting to finalize the model curriculum for ethnic studies in public schools. The possibly final meeting will be on March 18, and people have been urged to call in once again to make public comments, which the board will ignore.

In 2016 the legislature passed AB 2016 requiring the state board of education to adopt a model ethnic studies curriculum. An advisory board was set up to review curriculum proposed by several experts in ethnic studies. The draft curriculum published in the summer of 2019 was attacked as being far too radical. Zionists took the lead in the attack, claiming the curriculum was anti-Semitic. So it has gone through several rounds of drafts, each getting further from the concept that ethnic studies needs to address the work, culture, oppression, and resistance of people of color in California. In February all of the writers and advisory committee members involved in the original draft of the curriculum wrote to the board of education demanding their names be removed from the revised draft. 

Meanwhile in September AB 331, which would have required an ethnic studies course for high school graduation was vetoed by gov. newsom, who called it not sufficiently inclusive. By the time the bill had passed the legislature, it included “guardrails” which would have established a basis for suing a school or school district if the parent considered the curriculum to be “biased” in any way. Some advocates for ethnic studies are now promoting development of “liberated ethnic studies.” For more information, see http://www.liberatedethnicstudies.org.

In a letter this month supporting a return to the original curriculum as the basis for ethnic studies in California, QUIT! (Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism) wrote:

QUIT!, Queers for Palestine, a community-based activist group, strongly opposes the current version of the CA Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC)  We support an Ethnic Studies curriculum that centers the voices and experiences of communities of color.  The original version of the ESMC, written by experts in the fields of education and Ethnic Studies, provided guiding principles to ground the Ethnic Studies course in anti-racist, de-colonial and liberatory pedagogy.  Students taking the original Ethnic Studies course would have been empowered with critical thinking skills to analyze current systemic injustices.

QUIT!  as an LGBTQ organization, recognizes that the struggle for Queer liberation cannot be achieved without a clear intersectional anti-racist and de-colonial focus that was woven into the original Ethnic Studies.  We stand in solidarity with communities of color in the struggle for a genuine Ethnic Studies that provides empowering representational models of people of color.  We recognize that LGBTQ students faced a similar struggle, in which we were frequently told that our need for accurate curriculum was impossible to achieve. 

In particular, we demand that the Arab American lessons, including Palestine, that were written by Arab American educators, be reinstated under the Asian American rubric.  We find intolerable the use of a racist definition of anti-Semitism as criticism of Israel and the inclusion of Ashkenazi Jews in Asian American Studies, which have no basis in foundational scholarship. 

We also demand the restoration of the original key Ethnic Studies concepts, guiding principles and pedagogy that defines the foundations of an Ethnic Studies course compared to a general course in history.  This will entail reinserting the key terms and definitions aligned with Ethnic Studies scholarship and the correction of erroneous information about Ethnic Studies.  

Finally, as one of many groups who spoke at the Instructional Quality Committee, addressed public comments to the California Department of Education, and showed up in support of principle based Ethnic Studies that included Arab American Studies and Palestine, we are appalled that tens of thousands of comments and letters could be ignored in forming the revisions of the original Ethnic Studies Curriculum.  The resulting revision has led to the silencing of all those who are struggling to create a public education system that is formed by and serves our students of color and their families, who make up the majority of California’s public schools.

As California works to educate all students from kindergarten to community colleges to expand educational possibilities, and as California strives to address systemic racism through transformational policies, it is urgent that the State Board of Education sends a message of support for an anti-racist, de-colonial and liberatory Ethnic Studies in the spirit of the 1968 Third World Liberation Front and Black Student Union strikes.  It is not too late to call for the reinstatement of curriculum to reflect the current anti-racist struggles for liberation. 

The Case of the Disappearing Ethnic Studies

By Carla

            During the August 2020 Instructional Quality Committee (IQC) meeting of the California Department of Education (CDE), Superintendent of Education Tony Thurmond affirmed that Arab American Studies is an integral part of Ethnic Studies and would be included within the Asian American rubric for California’s Model Ethnic Studies Curriculum (ESMC). Thurmond’s proclamation came after months of organizing against attacks by right-wing Zionist organizations that advocated making Jewish studies a component of the model curriculum and for the inclusion of a definition of anti-Semitism that would disallow any criticism of Israel or the lessons on the history of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. Support for Arab American Studies and an Ethnic Studies centering the experiences of people of color was expressed by tens of thousands of people both through public comments and petitions. Supporters and the Coalition demanded that Thurmond’s promise be articulated in the newest revision of the ESMC.   However, an early November release of the curriculum only further weakened the guiding principles of Ethnic Studies and relegated Arab American Studies to an appendix, called the “interethnic bridge building appendix.” None of the original, carefully worked out and empowering curriculum designed by ethnic studies specialists and K-12 Ethnic Studies teachers were included in the revision.  (The revision and CDE information about the status of the ESMC can be found at https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/cr/cf/modelcurriculumprojects.asp ).

             The IQC met over two days. Oral public comments were made during the first day. The demands of the Save Arab American Studies Coalition, after much outreach and organizing, were represented by several speakers who addressed the need for Arab American Studies and the guiding principles of Ethnic Studies.  The principles are essential to distinguish an anti-racist, decolonizing and liberatory Ethnic Studies from a multi-culturalism, “all lives matter” program currently proposed by the CDE for California’s predominately student of color population.  Youth, such as Hedaia, appealed to the IQC members: 

“I am a Palestinian Arab Student. Do you know how it feels to be called a terrorist by your teacher and classmates?  It’s dehumanizing. As much as I tried to assimilate at my high school, I was always a scary Arab with a hard name to pronounce. This is how I grew up, facing Islamophobic and Arab slurs.”

A curriculum that enables students to develop tools to critically analyze anti-racist and decolonizing thinking and strategies for creating systemic changes in the world, would also enable all California students to make connections among colonial and anti-racist struggles. Hedaia, along with many others who spoke about the positive impact that a liberatory Ethnic Studies had in their lives, reminded the IQC that “By removing Arab American studies from the central curriculum, you are removing the existence of people who have contributed to this society and need to be represented in a positive light.” IQC committee members, and those listening to the public comments heard that “Representation matters,” so that having an inclusive curriculum is not sufficient. An Ethnic Studies curriculum must examine how people are represented, as we were reminded by many of the speakers who had graduated from university level Ethnic Studies programs. 

            Supporters of a principled and communities of color-centered Ethnic Studies curriculum outnumbered the detractors during the public comment period. Yet, several points stood out in the opposing view: they wanted, and did get, a watered down curriculum that couldn’t really be called Ethnic Studies any longer, they were staunchly pro-capitalist and wanted to replace “capitalism” in the curriculum to “systems of oppression,” and they wanted a definition of anti-Semitism that would vehemently disallow any criticism of Israel and discussions about Palestinians.  

            The political power of the Zionist lobby was demonstrated by the recent appointment of Anita Friedman to the IQC, who is also on the national board of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Commission), the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States. The fact that she has no expertise in Ethnic Studies, did not prevent her appointment to consider the ESMC. In addition, the CDE is using the Simon Wiesenthal Center, another Zionist organization, to develop curriculum for the ESMC, a curriculum that is intended to be representative of communities of color. Pro-Israel and Zionist groups have used their influence to destroy the intent of Ethnic Studies, and are moving the education of our youth further to the right and deeper into a white and Euro-centered curriculum, that Ethnic Studies was intended to counteract.

Where do we go from here?

            The struggle for Ethnic Studies is never over. The Save Arab American Studies Coalition (savearabamericanstudies.org) is continuing the struggle as the IQC finishes its final work before passing the curriculum on to the State Board of Education, where it will be revised again. Currently, the coalition is asking all educators to sign on to a petition for educators to speak out. This petition is linked to the savearabamericanstudies.org, TAKE ACTION, or at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScgFSkcoRjIMjQC9WAESyYCX4yNkfawPtT7f1RoyENOra_l3A/viewform. The coalition is also asking organizations to write a letter to the CDE by January 20th as part of their anti-racist work. The demands of the Coalition, summarized here, are to re-empower experts in the field of Ethnic Studies to work on the revisions for the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum to ensure an Ethnic Studies based on principles that distinguish Ethnic Studies from multiculturalism and inclusion. Secondly, Arab American studies must be an integral part of Ethnic Studies, not a footnote or afterthought, and Palestine must be part of Arab American Studies. Finally, the State Board of Education must approve an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum that is anti-racist and decolonial, examining systemic and structural racism and colonialism as well as strategies for liberation. The voices and experiences of communities of color must be central to Ethnic Studies and to the conversations about what should be included in Ethnic Studies. Remember to visit savearabamericanstudies.org for updates, actions, or to join in the struggle. 

California Education Department Agrees: Arab American is Part of Ethnic Studies

by Carla

Consideration of the revised Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) at the August 13th Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) resulted in an historic announcement by Superintendent of Education, Tony Thurmond, that Arab American Studies is a “part of ethnic studies.”  The Curriculum is still being considered by the IQC and will go through its second round of revisions in the coming year. Lara Kiswani, Executive Director of the Arab Resource & Organizing Center, commented,  “We are hopeful that if the California Department of Education centers ethnic studies experts in the revision process, California and the rest of the country will be resourced with a robust, relevant and transformative curriculum.”

The original curriculum, drafted by an advisory committee of Ethnic Studies educators, was sent for revisions based on public comments that criticized it as “anti-Semitic” because of the inclusion of Arab American Studies and Palestine.  The Coalition to Save Ethnic Studies consisting of educators and community organizations, including Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism (QUIT!) formed to ensure that the original intent of centering communities of color and the inclusion of Arab American as well as Pacific Islander and Central American studies were seen as integral to the establishment of an Ethnic Studies program in 7-12 public schools.  Members of the Coalition were also advocating for a stronger Native American component of the curriculum.  The historic strike fifty years ago for Ethnic Studies at the Cal State University system by the Black Student union (BSU) and the Third World Liberation Front (TWLG) served as a paradigm for the 7-12 curriculum.

graphic of ethnic studies demonstration

The TURATH (Teaching Understanding & Representing Arabs Throughout History) 2020 report, conducted by the Arab Youth Organization, demonstrated the need for strong educational programs to teach Arab and Arab American histories and cultures in California public schools.   The necessity of a decolonizing anti-racist Ethnic Studies Curriculum is supported by student experiences.  One student reported, “As an Arab student I have felt discriminated against multiple times.  In seventh grade we learned about Islam.  There were many occasions where students would drop pencils and yell ‘there’s a bomb’.”  The student added that educators did not intervene to stop the harassment.  The TURATH report also discovered that 66% of students interviewed learned about Arabs and Muslims from the TV and internet.  The students’ experiences of harassment and ignorance, coupled with the misinformation of commercial media, point out the necessity of a required Ethnic Studies class that provides the tools to critique and transform systemic racism and colonialism, and to be a component of an education of liberation. 

One of the purposes of the Coalition was to create an inclusive Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, with Arab American Studies and Palestine lessons as part of the curriculum.  The Coalition was also established to work in conjunction with some of the original authors of the model curriculum in order to mount a campaign against right wing Zionist attacks.   The revised curriculum supported by the Zionist gutted the intent of Ethnic Studies by failing to weave in the principles of Ethnic Studies into lessons, and by excluding Arab Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Central Americans from the lessons.  The Coalition also worked to counter the claims that equated criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. 

The success of the Coalition’s campaign was clear during the public comments section of the August 13th IQC meeting where speakers demanded that the IQC reconvene the original authors of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, that the principles of Ethnic Studies as a distinct discipline be restored, and that the curriculum be inclusive of Arab Americans and other communities of color. 

The struggle still continues as the IQC decides the next steps in the revision process.  The coalition wants to ensure that Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum centers the voices of communities of color and will continue to work in coalition with all impacted communities.  For more information about the on-going campaign check out the website:  savearabamericanstudies.org