In summary

Ethnic studies recognizes the racial injustices that have occurred so that people can be empowered to work toward the American ideal of fair opportunity.

By Jose Medina and

Assemblymember Jose Medina, a Democrat from Riverside, represents California’s 61st Assembly District, Assemblymember.Medina@assembly.ca.gov.

Laura E. Gómez, Special to CalMatters

Laura E. Gómez is a UCLA professor and author of “Inventing Latinos: A New Story of American Racism,”  GOMEZ@law.ucla.edu.

At a moment of national reckoning about persistent racial inequality, the responses from the Trump administration and the state of California are as contrasting as night and day. 

The White House issued a memo calling on federal agencies to eliminate anti-racism training focused on critical race theory and white privilege, casting these ideas as un-American. Meanwhile in California, a bill to make ethnic studies a high-school graduation requirement waits for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.

It is often said that as California goes, so goes the nation. While the state has its own history with discriminatory policies, the ethnic studies bill known as Assembly Bill 331, authored by one of us, represents hope for the future. It shows how a mutual and accurate understanding of history would pave the path forward toward reconciliation and racial justice in the nation’s most populous and most diverse state.

In fact, the transformative power of knowledge may be the very reason anti-racist workplace trainings have come under attack by the administration. For a state that has taken pride in leading the way for a country that will soon catch up to our diversity, there is no better time to make ethnic studies requirements California law.

Ethnic studies differs from traditional U.S. history by putting a lens on the stories and contributions of non-white racial and ethnic groups and the role they have played in the formation of American society. 

In California, Latino, African American and Asian American residents make up more than half of the state’s population, but 79% of individuals named in California social science textbooks are white. Studies have shown that access to ethnic studies improves performance and attendance for students of color, increases their likelihood of graduation, and fosters stronger understanding and improved interracial relations among all students. The academic benefits are critical for the future workforce of the world’s fifth largest economy.

Helping students of all backgrounds better understand the state and nation’s history is a necessary first step toward fostering stronger race relations – and improving policies that put people of color at a disadvantage. For California, the ethnic studies bill is part of a 25-year effort to rectify the state’s racist past by addressing the conditions that led to policies such as Prop. 187 in 1994, which barred undocumented residents from social services.

California now proudly has the role of serving as a national model for racial justice and progressive policies that give all residents a fair chance to thrive. In 2017, the Legislature made California a sanctuary state, barring local law enforcement from collaborating with federal immigration officials, recognizing the important role that immigrants play in the state’s economic and cultural vibrancy. In 2016, California voters repealed Prop. 227, a 1998 ballot initiative requiring all public instruction be taught in English. In November, voters will have a chance to overturn a ban on affirmative action that bars race as a consideration for government and educational opportunities.

Opponents to ethnic studies often argue that it weakens students’ connection to American identity. The president plays with fire when he gives credence to this framework and furthers racial tensions. It is also inaccurate. Academic scholarship has proven that non-white students can strengthen American identity and increase engagement with civic actions such as voting.   

Newsom can lead the way toward racial justice by signing AB 331. The diversity of California’s student body represents the future of this country, and it’s time they also see themselves reflected in its history.  

Ethnic studies recognizes the racial injustices that have occurred so that people can be empowered to work toward the American ideal of fair opportunity. There is power in teaching those lessons early in the lives of students.

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A related opinion: “No justice for high school ethnic studies bill; Newsom, Legislature should change that

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