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Why Ethnic Studies needs to be a graduation requirement for all CA students

Thanks to the extraordinary effort of student activists and organizers, Ethnic Studies is one step closer to being a graduation requirement for every high school student in California. By making nearly 400 calls, sending 1,300 emails, and getting over 24,000 signatures on the petition to pass AB 331, we successfully demanded that the Committee vote in a way that reflects the wishes of California students. The bill has successfully passed through the Senate Appropriations Committee, and it is now incumbent upon every single California Senator to commit to concrete anti-racist action by voting in favor of AB 331 and passing the bill for the Governor’s signature.

Ethnic Studies is an incredibly important course of study that all students should be required to take in order to make sure that our generation is properly informed on racial issues. It is too easy to fall into believing the pervasively perpetuated racial stereotypes promoted by history textbooks and classes that do not accurately reflect the nature of our shared history and tout a eurocentric view of the world that ignores the innumerable contributions and centuries-long struggles of BIPOC communities. To build a more equitable society and properly educate our students through anti-racist school curricula, we must reckon with the difficult and controversial aspects of history that may only be taught in Ethnic Studies courses.

The fight for Ethnic Studies can be traced back over half a century to SF State University, when students went on strike for the admittance of more Black students and to protest the mistreatment of BIPOC staff and already enrolled students. Because of youth-led protests intended to break up the white hegemonic grip over elite educational institutions, Ethnic Studies courses were introduced to college campuses for virtually the first time ever. Student activism paved the way for Ethnic Studies classes in schools across the country, and student activism can guarantee that all students are required to learn American history through different racial lenses.

Mandating an Ethnic Studies curriculum for all California high school students has always been an uphill battle. In 2015, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a measure to create a model Ethnic Studies curriculum that could be implemented at all California schools. In 2018, Gov. Brown again vetoed a measure to make Ethnic Studies a high school graduation requirement, citing concerns that it may “overburden” high school students. In a world where high school students, especially students of color, have had to reckon with the transgressions of past generations when dealing with institutionally racist practices, from standardized testing that measures your ability to access test prep resources rather than intellectual capability to the over-policing of our schools with officers disproportionately punishing Black and Latinx students, the only burden avoided with the lack of an Ethnic Studies mandate is the weight of the knowledge that we, the students, must be the ones to create tangible change toward equality in our country. We the students must be the ones that become educated about America’s messy and complicated record on race, and then do the work to leave it in the past instead of perpetuating the same harm. We the students must be the ones who stand up to authority when the validity of our views is dismissed as “cancel culture.” We the students must be the ones to create a better future for our kids, not by pretending that we’ve entered a post-racial era, but by recognizing how our country has fundamentally failed to live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. We can and we must obtain liberty and justice for all, and through a comprehensive re-education in anti-racist history for all of our students and fellow citizens, a brighter, more equitable future lies ahead of us.

As Kamala Harris said in her speech yesterday to the Democratic National Convention, “there is no vaccine for racism. We’ve gotta do the work.” Implementing Ethnic Studies classes statewide will take years of concerted, coordinated effort from dedicated state officials, district administrators, and educators, but the effort is well worth it if we can ensure that the next generation of students is more informed about our diverse history than any generation before them.

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