By Stephen Magagnini | OBSERVER Editor-In-Chief
In March, after four years of intense debate, the California State Board of Education approved a comprehensive plan to develop ethnic studies programs, including a model curriculum highlighting courses, materials and strategies already being taught at universities and secondary schools throughout the state.
Many top educators believe a robust course in ethnic studies — including a deep dive into America’s history of genocide, slavery, discrimination, internment of Japanese Americans and disproportionate incarceration of people of color — is the best antidote for the racism that continues to plague the nation at almost every level, from schools to housing to policing.
“California’s students have been telling us for years that they need to see themselves and their stories represented in the classroom,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond in a statement. The Board’s “historic action gives schools the opportunity to uplift the histories and voices of marginalized communities in ways that help our state and nation achieve racial justice and create lasting change. By fostering our understanding of the struggles and achievements of people of color, ethnic studies benefit students of all backgrounds.”
The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is aimed at empowering students by illuminating the often-untold struggles and contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Latino/a/x Americans, and Asian Americans in California, Thurmond said. It serves up a vast menu of topics ranging from African history and culture before slavery to the Middle Passage, resistance against kidnap and slavery, the central role African Americans played in building America, and numerous Black pioneers, scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, political leaders, artists and writers.
To view the entire model curriculum, go to https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/cr/cf/esmc.asp Chapters 3, 4, and 6 contain most of the African American studies content.
The topic of ethnic studies generated thousands of public comments and has been so controversial that the state board of education doesn’t even use the term “guidelines,” but “guidance.”
“While its use is not mandated,” the board adds, “the curriculum is intended to supply local school districts with the background, ideas, and examples to begin local discussions on expanding ethnic studies offerings.” A bill in the California legislature, AB 101, would create an ethnic studies graduation requirement.
On March 18, “we made an important step toward confronting and ultimately transforming racism in our society and in our state,” said state board President Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond. “This day has been a long time in coming, and we are reminded daily that the racial injustice it reveals is not only a legacy of the past but a clear and present danger.
“Seventy years ago, in the height of the McCarthy era, W.E.B. DuBois wrote: ‘Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental,’” Dr. Darling-Hammond said. “‘The freedom to learn … has been bought by bitter sacrifice.’”
An all-star team of civil rights activists backed the plan, including Dolores Huerta, a community organizer who helped found the United Farm Workers (UFW); Secretary of State Dr. Shirley Weber; Karen Korematsu, daughter of Japanese American civil rights activist Fred Korematsu and founder of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute; Temple University African American Studies Professor Dr. Molefi Kete Asante; and Stanford University Chicano Studies Professor Albert Camarillo.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said racism is a sickness, and we have to become the healers,” Ms. Huerta said in urging the board to adopt the curriculum. “Si se puede!”
Dr. Weber, a veteran educator and legislator, declared, “A well-taught ethnic studies curriculum is beneficial to all students regardless of race. It transforms their lives.”
Dr. Weber, a San Diego State University Africana Studies professor emeritus, helped establish the discipline at the university in 1972. “My former students are different professionals because they have a different level of respect for others,” she said.
Her mentor, Dr. Asante, argued vigorously in favor of the model curriculum. Asante, one of the world’s leading authorities on African American studies and the author of nearly 100 books, remembers getting up at 5:30 a.m. to pick and chop cotton for $3 a day in south Georgia. He realized early on that education was his path out of the cotton fields.
“Education is really at the center of transformation. … When people don’t have information they are inclined to believe conspiracies and myths, and the biggest myth in the world created by Europeans was the racial ladder based on how people looked,” he said.
Dr. Asante, who consults with schools across America and worldwide on how to teach Afrocentric studies, said such classes address a range of inequities, including those created by COVID-19, such as the greater rate of infection and mortality suffered by African Americans and that lack of vaccines, either because they weren’t initially available to people in urban America, or because some Black people are suspicious of western medicine given historic abuses such as the Tuskegee Experiment.
Starting in 1932, 600 African American men in Alabama, most of them sharecroppers, were promised free medical care to participate in a syphilis study. The 399 men who had syphilis were never treated during the 40-year span of the study; 28 of them eventually died of the disease. One hundred more died from related complications, 40 wives came down with the disease and 19 children were born with it. The study’s participants and their families filed a class action lawsuit and were awarded $10 million in 1974, and in 1997 President Bill Clinton made a formal apology.
Black Studies courses are “already taking these subjects head on, we’re deeply concerned about the lack of information, and people not getting vaccinated because of conspiracy theories,” Dr. Asante told The OBSERVER.
Dr. Asante, who’s currently working with the Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia to establish an African studies course, says such courses “absolutely can combat racism. All students need to know something about Africa, Black students need to know too because part of the violence we see in the African American community is because these kids have no understanding of who they are or where they came from. They are rootless — they ask ‘Who are we? Where did we come from? Wasn’t there a history of Africa before the enslavement? Who were the African kings and queens?’
“If you grow up with a sense of self-hatred it’s more difficult to love yourself.”
Such classes are just as important in changing the views and prejudices some White students grow up with, Dr. Asante said. “We have White students who have come to me with tears in their eyes, they were never aware that Black people had done anything to make the world better. They were basically ignorant, and ignorance about each other is a profound recipe for racism and perhaps the greatest danger to our nation.”
While the model curriculum covers a broad range of topics and approaches, including Black science fiction as well as history, invention and culture,
Dr. Asante said that given the ignorance about Africa — in 2018 then-President Donald Trump called African nations “s—hole countries” — “the best thing is to always start from the beginning. If you start from the beginning, human beings, homo sapiens are first found in Africa, human civilization is first developed in Africa and until 70,000 years ago, all homo sapiens were in Africa.”
Africa is where the first humans stood upright, and “all of our ancestors came from Africa, and we are all 99.9% genetically the same – these ethnic studies programs can really explain what has become of us since the migration out of Africa,” Dr. Asante said.
“Our enslavement was an accident of history that in many ways underscored this notion of Black inferiority and White people have kept this notion going,” Asante said, who gave as an example the concocted hierarchy of races and cultures with Nordics and Aryans atop, then Mediterranean Whites and Asians.
“We didn’t create that racial lie, we didn’t classify or characterize people by their color or hair texture,” Dr. Asante said, “If you don’t have education you don’t understand what dominates in America is this racial ladder. When a White police officer sees a Black person they presume inferiority. They have set in their mind this myth that does not exist and we have to eradicate that with education. Police shoot these young brothers because their perception of Blacks has been created by this ladder, which says if you’re Black there are certain attributes that you have. My new ambition is to get rid of the racial ladder — all human beings are human beings. When I see African people I presume excellence, I presume intelligence.”
Some Sacramento schools already offer ethnic studies.
The Elk Grove Unified School District has approved an English elective, described in the course catalogue as “designed to provide key language, historical lessons, and critical analysis skills that empower students to articulate and address the social injustices they see and experience. The class will cultivate the understanding necessary for social, political, and educational engagement while developing academic literacy skills. Students will be able to take an in-depth look at history through a thematic approach (as opposed to chronological) as well as theories of multicultural and gender studies.”
“The Elk Grove Unified School District also offers an African American cultural studies course and a cultural studies course as electives; however, there is no adopted curriculum,” said communications director Xanthi Soriano. “For ethnic studies, Cosumnes Oaks High School offered two sections for the 2020-2021 school year and Florin High School enrolled all of their ninth-grade students in the course.”
Ethnic studies teachers will have the opportunity to receive training through a week-long institute and are invited to participate in the year-long ethnic studies work group offered by the California History Social Science Projects, Soriano said.
Because a growing number of schools offer ethnic studies — some of California’s largest school districts require it for graduation — $5 million is included in the January budget proposal specifically for high-quality ethnic studies professional development.
“The ethnic studies model curriculum is a starting point,” Ms. Korematsu said. “It’s not an endpoint. This is a pivotal moment in California’s educational history. The fight for justice and human rights begins with education, and begins now.”
Dr. Asante said most African American history classes span a semester, and teachers require intensive training. At the Germantown Friends School, he’s teaching African American history to teachers for 45 minutes a day over two weeks.
Another option is to train teachers for five days over five weekends, starting at 9:30 a.m. and finishing at 2:30 p.m. Other districts offer the training in the summer and pay the teachers for their time. “You have to get buy-in from the school board and the superintendent, and find teachers willing to teach from a culturally relevant standpoint,” Dr. Asante said. Some districts let teachers take Fridays off for training.
By green-lighting ethnic studies to help students understand the multicultural nature of society and the historical context behind inequities and discrimination, “California has taken a giant step forward,” Dr. Asante said, praising Dr. Weber’s progressive leadership and her grasp of the idea that California can be a national leader “in establishing a common appreciation for the fact that all human beings can contribute to society, there should be no hierarchy and no patriarchy.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.