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By Theresa Montaño, Special to CalMatters

Theresa Montaño is professor of Chicana/o Studies at CSU Northridge and chair of the California Faculty Association’s Teacher Education Caucus, theresa.montano@csun.edu.

Even as the Assembly and Senate voted overwhelmingly with bipartisan support to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement at the California State University, CSU management and leadership is doing everything it can to blunt progress on inclusive learning.

In a recent commentary, CSU Chancellor Timothy White decried systemic barriers to change while ironically promoting CSU’s status quo resolution on ethnic studies. White offered the resolution only after Assembly Bill 1460, proposed by Assemblymember Shirley Weber, gained traction.  

The CSU complains of the “cost” of strengthening ethnic studies course offerings, but ignores – as many senators recently pointed out – the true cost of doing nothing: the continuation of centuries of racism against people of color, including the killing of black people, oftentimes at the hands of police. While I appreciate the CSU’s support of Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 to bring back equity in college admissions and hiring, AB 1460 is just as meaningful to ending systemic racism.

Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom has the chance to take the torch and ensure every student graduating from CSU’s 23 campuses learns of the contributions of racialized ethnic people and their experiences in this society. 

For more than 50 years, communities of color, students and faculty have advocated for ethnic studies, holding hunger strikes, rallies and sit-ins. In 1970, I was one of those students. As a young Chicana student activist, I, along with two other young women, convinced hundreds of students to walk out of our high school to protest an educational system that lied about our history, dishonored and disrespected our language, and endeavored to confine our population to the lower end of the economic scale.    

At that time, Chicanas/os were about 20% of the population of Los Angeles, about half of my school was composed of students of color, and the number of Chicanas/os in colleges and universities was minuscule.  

Today, students of color represent the majority of students in our K-12 schools, community colleges and California State Universities. It is time to recognize the voices of those previously neglected.  Nineteen of the 23 CSU’s are Hispanic Serving Institutions, 62% of the bachelor degrees granted to Latinx students are from the CSU, and the CSU brags that it is one of the most “ethnically and racially diverse university systems in the U.S.”  The fact that we find ourselves embroiled in a battle for three units of ethnic studies as a graduation requirement is disheartening, to say the least.

As ethnic studies faculty, we seek greater empathy with our stories of persecution and repression, therefore we consistently reference other forms of oppression in our classrooms.  Ethnic studies is an inclusive discipline; it is relevant, responsive and encourages students of all races to make meaningful connections to the curriculum. 

I want my students to connect their lived realities and histories to the historical and contemporary struggles of my people. This is how we learn to intersect our stories, empathize with other people’s oppression and most importantly, learn the importance of unity and solidarity. Likewise, Christine Sleeter argues that ethnic studies allows white students to learn about cultures, histories and experiences other than their own and this impacts the ways in which they live in our society. This leads to reduced white supremacy, racism and hate that is rooted in ignorance and stereotypes. 

It is time to respect the histories, cultures and stories of students of color in California and the academic tradition of 50 years of ethnic studies. It is time for students across California to take an authentic ethnic studies course, and benefit from the tremendous academic and social value it has been demonstrated to provide for students of all races/ethnicities.

It is time to recognize that ethnic studies is not just my history, it is California’s history.  Newsom can do just that by signing AB 1460 when it lands on his desk.

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