Rage, Reason and The Reckoning – Why Ethnic Studies Matters
By Eddie Wong – Posted July 26, 2021.
We’re now mid-way through 2021 and the collision of rage versus reason is creating a reckoning where rain, fire, and wind signal chickens coming home to roost. There are wildfires raging in the western states and Siberia, massive flooding due to torrential rains in Germany, Belgium and China, drought in the American West, Australia and southern Europe, and life-threatening heat in many parts of the world. What man has wrought via the excessive burning of fossil fuels, nature has brought back with a whirlwind of destruction.
In the U.S., another type of fire storm burns intensely. The forces of backwardness, which in their rage against social progress, are going full throttle to preserve white supremacy. Reactionary forces that were nurtured under Trump have hurtled themselves forward on several fronts: repression of voting rights, wanton disregard for public safety via anti-vaccine/disinformation campaigns, denial of climate change, and censuring an honest discussion of racial and sexual equality in classrooms.
Multiracial high school classroom in Georgia. Photo from Better Georgia website.
But equally present on the scene today are forces of reason and compassion. We see pronouncements from President Biden on the sanctity of voting rights, we hear impassioned pleas from public health officials to vaccinate against the spread of new Covid cases due to the Delta variant, and we see public school teachers rising up to protest new state laws that curtail classroom discussions on racial and sexual discrimination.
Looming in the background of the social issues is the moral weight of a reckoning over America’s racist past and the systematic inequality that falls on African Americans and other people of color. We, who have lived through social turmoil and riots in the ‘60s and ‘70s, know that rebellions are only a spark away.
This is the America’s zeitgeist 2021. A moment of contention over competing visions laced with threats of violence from the far-right. None of the polarization we face will go away easily. The Republican Party, which Trump controls, operates like thugs and wannabe despots. Elections are only legitimate when they win. They will block all actions to bring a modicum of fairness to working people and marginalized communities to cast the Biden administration as a failure. They will continue to obstruct progress and foster division in the hopes that 2022 and 2024 elections fall their way.
What should we do in the face of this onslaught? We can begin by highlighting the voices of reason and compassion on all fronts and activate the multitudes who disagree with the reactionaries but who are not engaged in the progressive camp. And to that end, we must fight with all our might to defend ethnic studies and push for its implementation in our educational systems from K-12 to college and in workplaces and government institutions. The reactionaries know that controlling the narrative about our nation’s past, present and future is hugely influenced by what is taught in classrooms across the country. After many decades of struggle, people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ communities and others have won the right to have their stories taught as part of the standardized curriculum opening the doors for an open discussion about past discrimination as well as paths towards full participation. Now, the reactionaries want to slam those doors shut.
Asian American Studies for K-12 Advances Nationally
On July 9, 2021, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) Act which will mandate Asian American historical curriculum in all public schools. The bill was initiated by a coalition of over 20 Illinois organizations and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago and sponsored by State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, a third-generation Chinese American, and State Sen. Ram Villivalan, an Indo-American from Chicago. Villivalan said, “Students from all backgrounds need to learn about the history of people from different cultures and ethnicities to help them understand the systemic inequities that exist today.” Rep. Gong-Gerhowitz added, “ For the 100,000 Asian American K-12 students in Illinois, it ensures they see themselves accurately represented. Asian American history is American history.”
L-R: Rep. Gong-Gershowitz, Gov. Pritzker, and Sen. Vallivalan at the signing of the TEAACH Act.
The TEAACH Act will use the PBS series “Asian Americans” as a resource and draw upon the 30 lessons plans aimed at various grade levels. In addition to the lesson plan on topics such as “Angel Island and the Chinese Exclusion Act,” background readings and activities are suggested for students. Lesson Plans from the PBS series “Asian Americans.”
Asian American studies will join existing units dedicated to African American history, Women in History, Holocaust and Genocide Education, Disability History and Awareness in the Illinois state curriculum.
Legislators in other states have also proposed bills to implement Asian American studies. Spearheaded by Assembly member Ron Kim and Yuh-Line Niou and State Senator John Liu, the New York bill would require public elementary and high schools to teach students about Asian American history and their civic impact. The bill was introduced in April and is currently under review in the Senate Education Committee.
The Wisconsin bill seeks to require “at all grade levels, an understanding of human relations, particularly with regard to…Hmong Americans and Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans,” according to sponsor Rep. Francesca Hong (D- Madison). Wisconsin has the third largest Hmong American population in the nation. A similar bill was proposed in 2020 and it died in the Republican-dominated state senate. Hong, who is a Korean American chef, also fought for a bipartisan resolution condemning the Atlanta spa murders. Not a single Republican legislator signed the resolution.
In Connecticut, State Senator Saud Anwar (D-Hartford), a Pakistani American physician, proposed SB 678 which would offer an elective course on Asian Pacific American studies as part of the social studies curriculum. “If you look at the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment… if policies like that were made today, everybody would be shocked that we as a country allowed this to happen,” Sen. Anwar told the Hartford Courant on Feb. 26, 2021. “It is important to have this conversation,” he added. The bill was also endorsed by Sen. Tony Hwang (R – Fairfield) and several other senators. SB 678 is patterned after a bill passed in 2019 that mandated elective courses for African American and Latino studies in Connecticut public schools.
Several news articles about these efforts cited the upsurge in anti-Asian violence as a motivating factor in advancing this legislation. But the Asian American parents and students have demanded inclusion of our stories in K-12 systems for decades. Building off the call for a deeper appreciation of African American, Latino, and Native American history as a prerequisite for living in a multicultural society, Asian Americans whose ranks include a multitude of nationalities have asked for similar inclusion in the social studies curriculum.
Arizona students voice support for Ethnic Studies. Photo from National Education Association website.
Why White Supremacists and Their Allies Are Afraid of Ethnic Studies
Ethnic studies is often presented as expanding students’ awareness of ethnic groups whose stories have been left out of history books. But that simple act of inclusion has alarmed white supremacists because these “left out” stories were so because of the whitewashing of America’s brutal history of forced displacement of Native Americans, enslavement of African Americans, and land theft and peonage for the Mexican and Native American settlers of the Southwest. Thus, reactionaries were incensed by “The 1619 Project,” a New York Times series in Aug. 2019 that laid bare the history of slavery as a fundamental element in the development of the United States. President Trump’s response signaled the broader rightwing attack that would be unleashed: “Critical race theory, the 1619 Project and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.” He issued an executive order to establish a “1776 Commission” to restore patriotic education in schools.
Since 2019 and especially since the furor over the numerous police killings of African Americans in 2020, notably the slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis, people have demanded more exposure of systematic racism in public education. Bringing these discussions into the classroom has infuriated white supremacists and their allies.
Four states have passed laws in 2021 to restrict teaching that “one race is inherently superior,” i.e., white supremacy doesn’t exist. The Tennessee law signed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee on May 25, 2021 stipulates that the state education commission must withhold state funds if a public school “knowingly violates the ban on teaching 14 concepts that are “divisive,” e.g., discussion on privilege or racial bias.
Ruby Bridges desegregates New Orleans elementary school. Photo from U.S. Justice Dept.
Following that lead, Moms for Liberty, a group in Williamson County, TN objected to the inclusion of the book Ruby Bridges Goes to School, the true story of a six-year old Black child who desegregates her school in New Orleans in the 1960s. Robin Steenman, head of the Moms for Liberty, told the Williamson County Commission’s education committee that the depiction of a “large crowd of angry white people who didn’t want Black children in a white school” was harsh and that the book didn’t offer “redemption” at the end of the story. The group also objected to lessons plans for other books in the “Wit and Wisdom” curriculum that used words like “injustice,” “unequal,” “inequality,” “protest,” “marching,” and “segregation.”
Women at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans yell at police officers during a protest against desegregation at the school on Nov. 15, 1960. (Bettmann Archive)
How are students supposed to extract lessons from history if we leave out the ugly truths of segregation, lynching, exclusion, and genocide? Assistant Superintendent of Teaching, Learning and Assessment Dave Allen told the commission, “I’ve received a flood of emails recently that said, “Don’t do anything with the curriculum. My kid’s loving it.”
Moms for Liberty claims on their Twitter feed that they now have 78 chapters in 25 states. We certainly haven’t heard the end of drumbeat to whitewash the teaching of American history. In fact, a proposed law in Missouri calls for the banning of the use of the following: “The 1619 Project,” which is now available as a book; the Learning for Justice curriculum of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Black Lives Matter School, Teaching for Change, and the Zinn Education Project.
Parents and students are pushing back against this reactionary tide. More on this later in this article as we look at Los Alamitos Unified School District in Orange County, California.
Ethnic Studies Offers a Critical Examination of U.S. history
The adoption of ethnic studies in elementary and secondary schools in cities with significant numbers of people of color has advanced the call for statewide requirements for multicultural education. California offers an instructive example. In 2008, the San Francisco Unified School District mandated an ethnic studies course at five high schools. By 2015, the course was offered as an elective at all 17 high schools. On March 23, 2021, the board voted to include two semesters or 10 elective credits of ethnic studies as a requirement for graduation beginning with the class of 2028. The board reinforced the value of ethnic studies in their public announcement of the new requirement: “Research has shown that Ethnic Studies curriculum in high schools has demonstrated an increase in GPA across disciplines, high school graduation rates, college-going rates, and a sense of belonging. Additional studies show that Ethnic Studies curriculum helps to narrow the opportunity gap for students of color as well as benefit white students.”
True to the founding of Ethnic Studies on college campuses such as SF State University, the curriculum is centered on challenging past narratives of American history. Using the lens of power dynamics, i.e., who exerts economic and political power over marginalized groups, the curriculum asks for a critical examination of the distribution of resources and wealth in society.
On Aug. 25, 2020, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has 650,000 K-12 students, passed a resolution to expand Ethnic Studies classes and content throughout all grade levels and to require students to complete one Ethnic Studies courses in order to graduate high school by 2022-2023.
The California State Board of Education unanimously approved the 900-page Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, which was developed over three years and revised after 100,000 public comments. The core of the curriculum focuses on African Americans, Chicanos/Latinos, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans, but lesson plans also cover the history of Jews, Arab Americans, Sikh Americans, and Armenian Americans. The curriculum features 33 lesson plans which local school districts may use and revise to as needed.
Dr. Karen Korematsu, daughter of Fred Korematsu who resisted the WWII internment of Japanese Americans, is one of California’s new Education Ambassadors. She commented on the board’s decision to adopt the Ethnic Studies curriculum: “This is a pivotal moment in our California education history. As my father said, ‘Stand up for what is right,” Prejudice is ignorance, and the most powerful weapon we have is education.”
Classrooms are increasingly becoming racially diverse across the U.S. Photo from the American Psychological Association website, 2020.
The Battle for Ethnic Studies in Los Alamitos, California
The victories recounted above are the result of patient groundwork by parents and students in alliance with sympathetic teachers and administrators. This was certainly the case in Los Alamitos, a small town in Orange County, California. This town of 11, 628 people is 46.6% White, 26% Latino, 14.6% Asian, and 5.7% African American. For over a year, students have requested ethnic studies at the high school level. The district formed a Human Relations Task Force to look into the matter. Some local residents and outside conservative groups vehemently opposed ethnic studies on the grounds that it would foster division. Finally in June 2021, the school board approved a high school ethnic studies elective.
Well before the brouhaha on ethnic studies, issues of race and xenophobia surfaced when the City of Alamitos passed an ordinance in April 2018 to exempt the city from the California Vales Act, which prohibited local police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. Cathery Yeh, a Los Alamitos resident who teaches at Chapman University, recalled a heated city council hearing where supporters of the sanctuary city law were shouted down with cries of “Go back to where you came from.” The heated rhetoric prompted community members to advocate for education that valued inclusion and promoted multicultural understanding.
Tensions were high as more than 200 people attended the board of education meeting on April 27, 2021 to discuss the proposed ethnic studies class and social justice standards. Twenty students addressed the board. “In order for students to learn about the countless figures and events that our current curriculum overlooks, we must include ethnic studies as an elective course at Los Alamitos High School,” said Jack Chang, a junior at LAHS.
Rev. Samuel Pullen, pastor of the “Rainbow Church” of Los Alamitos, speaks in favor the the ethnic studies course. Photo by VoiceofOC.
Emy Chen, an eight-grader at Oak Middle School, who also spoke at the school board meeting, recalled that opponents of ethnic studies often booed the students, especially the younger students, and yelled comments like “You’re brainwashed” at them. “There was a lot of misinformation being shared,” added Emy. “We say ethnic studies is the history of us. It’s unfiltered history.”
In a letter to the community, the opponents claimed that the course…” teaches children of color that they are victims of this white supremacy and encourages all children to be social justice warriors in an effort to right the wrongs of white people who are the oppressors. Black Lives Matter (BLM) is considered as ‘an effective social movement communities have initiated and sustained in response to oppression and systems of power.’ Are these your values? Do you want your children or the children in your community to be taught this racist ideology? “ The proposed Los Alamitos curriculum certainly does not paint all white people as oppressors. But the opponents know a good trigger word when they see it and freely deploy falsehoods to rally their supporters.
Prior to the April 27 board meeting, opponents held a meeting at Cornerstone Church in Long Beach, CA on April 20, the day of the country erupted in demonstrations upon the murder of George Floyd. Speakers raised the specter of Critical Race Theory being brought into Los Alamitos schools when that is not the case. Ariela Gross, a University of Southern California law professor explained that “CRT is taught in law school for students to understand the interaction of racism and government policies – for instance, that racial segregation didn’t just happen by choice but because laws dictated where people of color could live.” She added, “CRT is not what is happening in K-12.”
The crowd was revealed to be mostly outsiders when a speaker asked Los Alamitos Unified parents to stand up. There were 30 parents present out of the 200 attendees.
“Orange County is the third largest county of (Asian and Pacific Islanders) in the United States,” said Superintendent Michael Matsuda of the Anaheim Union High School District to Voice of OC on April 21, 2021. “I think that is incumbent on districts to really take a close examination of their ethnic studies courses and especially telling the stories of Asian Americans in Orange County.”
Starting Fall 2021, 11th-12th grade students at Los Alamitos High will be able to take the ethnic studies elective course. A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki will be the core text supplemented with resources such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations and several documentaries including Race: The Power of an Illusion by San Francisco Newsreel, Viva La Causa: The Story of Cesar Chavez, and Little Manila: Filipinos in California’s Heartland by Marissa Arroy. The course outline encourages students to become active learners who utilizing oral history projects and understanding community developing via organizing projects. It’s a very impressive and thoughtful approach that emphasizes intersectionality: Los Alamitos Ethnic Studies Course Outline.
Perhaps students will come away from this class with new insights about their lives and their power to make change. That’s certainly the lesson Emy Chen took away from her participation in this campaign. “I really improved my public speaking skills,” Emy laughed. “And I learned that what I say can impact the community.”
The Reckoning 2021
The idea that we can move blithely through life without being impacted by past choices and actions is a fool’s dream. We see the marks of historical discrimination borne from conscious policies of exclusion, but many people do not acknowledge these truths because it is inconvenient and disturbing. Such avoidance does nothing to delay the reckoning.
The idea of a reckoning runs deeply in Christianity and Islam, where it is called al-Qiyāmah, and it is simply the notion of a “day of judgement” when at the end of life, one is held accountable for past actions. Even if you are not a religious person, it is hard to ignore the basic truth of consequences when we see the deadly impact of global warming. Similarly, the cruel exploitation and disenfranchisement of people of color will not be forgotten as new generations learn their histories and follow the ancestral path of struggle for social change. One hopes that ethnic studies not only empowers people of color but awakens white people to see that a civilized society can only be built on principles of justice and equity.
The idea of reckoning runs through the documentary “The Neutral Ground,” written and directed by CJ Hunt and broadcast on PBS’s POV series earlier in July. It’s now streaming for free at PBS.org. CJ Hunt, who is African American and Filipino, lends his compassionate and comedic voice (he’s a field producer for “The Daily Show with Treavor Noah” and a stand-up comedian) to the contentious issue of removing Confederate monuments in New Orleans and throughout the South.
Writer/Director CJ Hunt of “The Neutral Ground.” Photo by Paavo Hanninen.
Hunt spends time with one white supremacist who is quite affable and welcoming of his presence at a Civil War reenactment. When Hunt challenges him to see what slavery was truly like for the slaves via a tour of the Whitney Plantation, a museum in Wallace, Louisiana, the white supremacist rejects the suggestion claiming that the Whitney Plantation is “all lies.” Hunt recounts the history of the false narrative of a valiant South fighting to defend state’s rights while the Constitution of the Confederacy upholds the right to slavery.
“I also wanted to shift people’s understanding of what racism is.,” Hunt told The Guardian on July 6, 2021. “These people were all very nice to me. They did not hate me. They did not call me the N-word. But their entire worldview is based on their idea that enslaved people liked slavery and that white supremacy did not ever exist in the past and that the echoes of slavery that continue to kill Black people are not existing.”
After watching “The Neutral Ground,” I wondered if we’re going to have to wait for the older generation of white racists to die before we see some progress. But then I recall the chilling scene when a petrified CJ Hunt is shooting footage during the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, VA in 2017 where torch bearing young men shout “Jews will not replace us.” White supremacist ideas are promulgated via Proud Boys and Moms for Liberty via a robust social media network aided and abetted by rightwing pundits and politicians. They are toxic heirlooms passed down through generations.
This is why the stakes are so high in the battle for ethnic studies. The younger generation of students are demanding to learn their true histories because within those stories of resilience and resistance are the seeds for mobilizations for justice and equality. The rightwing clearly understands that squashing that discussion helps maintain their rule even as the world is rapidly changing around them.
Millennials and Gen Z. Photo from VistaToday website 2021.
A PEW Research Center study in 2018 revealed that 48% of the post-Millennial generation (those who were 6- 21 years old in 2018) are non-white. 40% of the millennials (those born 1981- 1996) are non-white. The white supremacists’ fears of “race mixing” is coming true. Interactions across racial lines are far more commonplace and accepted among Gen Z and Millennials and perhaps a new vision of social progress can be forged.
In a 2020 survey of 39,000 young Americans by Business Insider along with Yubo and StuDocu, 88% of the respondents feel that African Americans are treated differently than others; 78% have used social media to support equality for Black Americans; and 77% have attended protest rallies. No doubt much of this activism was spurred by the murders of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and others in 2020.
Youth participation in politics is an extension of their progressive views. According to the Harvard Youth Poll conducted from March 9-22, 2021 by the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School with 2,513 respondents, favorability for progressive stances has increased:
33% agreed with the statement that qualified minorities should be given special preference in hiring and education. This is a 19 point increase from the 2016 poll.
55% said that the government should do more to curb climate change. This is a 18 point increase from the 2016 poll.
61% said the government should do more to reduce poverty. This is a 16 point increase from the 2016 poll.
64% said that basic health services is right for all people. This is a 16 point increase from the 2016 poll.
37% said that recent immigration into this country has done more good than harm. This is an 8 point increase from the 2016 poll.
While the numbers look good for future advances (Gen Z and Millennials will form the largest voting bloc by 2028), the die-hard reactionaries are not going quietly into the night. Bills to restrict teachers from having honest discussions about America’s racial past are moving forward in 16 states. The latest outrage comes from the Texas State Senate which passed a bill on July 16, 2021 to strip from the curriculum two dozen requirements including studying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the works of United Farm Worker leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, Susan B. Anthony’s writing about the women’s suffragist movement, and Native American history. Lesson plans that label the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist terror as “morally wrong” were also stricken from the curriculum guidelines in Senate Bill 3. The House needs to deliberate on the Senate revisions in the educational code, but since House Democrats have left the state in protest of restrictive voting rights bills, there is no quorum to create a House version of SB 3. Although these eviscerations of historical truth from Texas social studies instruction may not come to pass, it only shows how reactionaries aka Republican legislators are hell-bent on imposing an extreme and whitewashed version of reality to students.
Rally and Memorial to Asian women murdered in Atlanta. March 23, 2021. Madison Park, Oakland, CA. Photo by Eddie Wong
There will certainly be more struggles ahead as the reactionaries rally their troops in advance of the 2022 mid-term elections and lay the groundwork to take back the presidency in 2024. Misinformation and fear mongering that we’ve seen recently in the attack on Critical Race Theory and Ethnic Studies can fully be expected around issues such as human rights, immigration, contention with China and public safety. We’re in for a rough ride, but as the parents and students at Los Alamitos Unified School District have shown us a path forward; when people of good will unite and fight, we can be victorious.
Author’s bio: Eddie Wong is the editor and publisher of East Wind ezine. He was one of the student activists who helped found the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, was co-editor of Roots: An Asian American Reader, and was a co-founder of Visual Communications, the nation’s first Asian American community non-profit media production company.
Rally in Orange County after the Atlanta spa killings. Photo by Julie Leopo, VoiceofOC.