Ethnic Studies = Social Justice

Political activism, not education.

ethAs Latinos overtake non-Hispanic whites as California’s largest ethnic group, a bill is now before the California state Senate which would require the Education Department to form a task force to study the implementation of a standardized ethnic studies curriculum in high schools across the state.

Sponsored by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, who has a bachelor’s degree in Chicano Studies from UC Berkeley, bill AB 1750 seeks to succeed where similar efforts to establish mandatory ethnic studies classes elsewhere have proven controversial – and failed.

Arizona, for example, passed a law in 2010 to shut down a Mexican-American studies curriculum that included books which Attorney General Tom Horne described as shockingly racist (even New Mexico state Rep. Nora Espinoza – herself Latina – called them “hate books”). Under a law forbidding classes “that advocate the overthrow of the United States, promote racial resentment, or emphasize students’ ethnicity rather than their individuality,” seven books were removed from high school classrooms to reside in the library (not banned, as opponents insist on describing it). Among them were titles such as Critical Race Theory, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Marxist activist Paulo Freire, and Message to Aztlan (Aztlan is a symbol for Latino activists who believe they have a legal right to the land the United States acquired from the Mexican-American War).

Tony Diaz, who co-founded the pro-ethnic studies movement Librotraficante to subvert the Arizonan law, says that anti-ethnic studies efforts are discriminatory and, curiously, “an attempt to turn colleges and high schools into finishing schools for corporations.” Diaz didn’t expound on why preparing students to succeed in the corporate workforce is bad or what it has to do with ethnic studies.

A movement to require Mexican-American courses in Texas recently fizzled out as well. Some Latino activists there say the public school curriculum reflects “institutionalized racism,” by which they mean that they resent being denied the opportunity to inflame students with their own anti-capitalist, racial supremacism.

Rodolfo Acuña, professor of Chicano Studies at Cal State University Northridge and author of the aforementioned Occupied America, claims to have worked on at least a dozen attempts himself to extend ethnic studies to public schools, but they never garnered legislative support. However, he said he doesn’t anticipate much opposition to the Californian bill. Assemblyman Alejo is optimistic too:

California is moving in a different direction, one that recognizes and values the history of the people who make up our state. This will put California on the cutting edge — while other states are trying to abolish ethnic studies, we can standardize and incorporate it into high school curriculum…

We’re trying to incorporate the histories and knowledge of different communities that make up our state — not limited to communities of color. Ethnic studies should be seen not just as Latino — but Irish, Jewish, Filipino — there is no limitation.

About California’s diverse student population, Alejo says, “We recognize those unique values and history, language and literatures – all of that should be included in California’s high school curriculum.”

Supporters say such a curriculum is necessary to help the burgeoning Latino student population feel better about themselves by delving into their own cultural heritage. Opponents say that such classes politicize students and breed ethnic resentment. Devon Peña, former director of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies, smears opposition as McCarthyism: “It’s just a witch hunt of a different color. Now, instead of going after the reds, they’re going after the browns.”

What, really, is ethnic studies all about? Ask proponents and among the responses you will find a common thread: social justice. Santa Monica High School teacher Kitaro Webb, for example, says that ethnic studies is about “civic engagement, responsibility and fighting for what you believe in.” “From its origins in the late 1960s, Ethnic Studies scholars have been committed to issues of social justice,” reads the mission statement of the University of Oregon’s Ethnic Studies Department, which analyzes “inequalities as they relate to whiteness and white privilege.” The UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Department’s mission statement reads, in part: “Inquiries into the nature of racial, ethnic, and gender inequality are informed by a commitment to social change and social justice.” [emphases added] Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, an Ethnic Studies professor at San Francisco State and a “community-engaged-motherscholar-of-color”, says that “What ethnic studies is really about is creating opportunity for young people to learn about themselves and the world around them and make the world a better place.” By making the world a better place, she means social justice, of course – the progressive euphemism for racial payback and wealth redistribution.

“It is unethical and unprofessional for teachers to use their power over students to get the students to be activists in support of the teachers’ political causes,” says Arizona Attorney General Horne. Absolutely right, but enlisting youth in the cause of social justice is the very raison d’etre of multiculturalist educators.

“For multiculturalists there is no unifying American culture” as James S. Robbins puts it in Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity. “They define people within groups and cultures that are present in the United States but are not to be thought of primarily, if at all, as American.” Multiculturalism is the politics of victimhood, and its proponents must “rewrite history to serve as a platform for their endless grievances.”

I’m no community-engaged-motherscholar-of-color, and forgive my unfashionable belief in American exceptionalism and my politically incorrect yearning to see my country lead the free world into the future. Allow me to put forth a crazy concept: instead of aggravating racial division and radicalizing ethnic students to despise their adopted country and white people, I recommend we expel subversives disguised as educators and concentrate our educational efforts at the high school level on the following common-sense points:

  • ground students in critical thinking skills and the crucial basics of math, science, and English communication expertise;
  • rather than explore what Alejo calls “the unique values and history, language and literatures” of a multitude of ethnicities, celebrate the history and values of the greatest country in the history of the world, the United States, and encourage our melting-pot unity as non-hyphenated Americans;
  • instill in students the conviction that individual achievement through competition and hard work will lead to personal and national economic success, while wallowing in the collective grievances of identity politics will lead only to poverty and racial division.

Education is more than teaching about the world around us, as Prof. Tintiangco-Cubales put it. It’s certainly not about mobilizing political activists and promoting ethnic rage and economic envy. Education is about empowering young people of all ethnicities with the competitive intellectual tools to fulfill their individual potential and to make their own productive way in the world. That will make the world a better place.

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