In summary

Ethnic Studies should be a graduation requirement at California State Universities because racial literacy is a skill needed to achieve a just and functioning society.

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By Janelle Wong, Special to CalMatters

Janelle Wong is professor of American Studies and Core Faculty in Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park,

California legislators are considering Assembly Bill 1460 to make Ethnic Studies, the interdisciplinary and comparative study of race and ethnicity, a class requirement at California State Universities.

Why should Ethnic Studies be a graduation requirement? Because racial literacy – understanding the history and interactions of racial groups as a function of systems and ideologies of power – is a critical skill needed to achieve a just and functioning society.

I am a Chinese American, born and raised in Yuba City, one of the most diverse rural places in California.  The town was and continues to be home to one of the largest South Asian Sikh populations in the U.S. About one-of-three residents identified as Hispanic when I grew up there in the 1980s. My kindergarten class included members of these groups, as well as black and white students. 

While I was exposed to diversity, I gained virtually no understanding of how different racial groups had developed or interacted over the course of history.  I graduated from high school without a good sense of my own Asian American history, carrying with me racial stereotypes of other non-white groups I’d been exposed to there.

Following graduation, I enrolled at UCLA where I took my first Ethnic Studies class. The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate.  In April of my sophomore year, a jury acquitted the Los Angeles police officers charged with using excessive force against black motorist Rodney King.  L.A.s’ multiracial fabric immediately began to tear apart as black and Latino residents took to the street following the verdict. 

By my junior year, Pete Wilson was running a gubernatorial campaign notorious for its anti-Latino, anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. I could’ve emerged from college believing that unruly “rioters” were burning down the city or that undocumented immigrants were “invading” California.  But I didn’t accept these assumptions because I’d taken classes in Ethnic Studies that helped shape my views through the lens of structural racism and entrenched racial hierarchies. I saw that racial wealth inequality, a tenacious racial order, nativism and racial segregation created conditions that led to urban unrest or attacks on immigrants.

Ethnic Studies didn’t just help me understand the mechanisms of racial oppression. It also ensured I recognized the overlapping histories and cross-racial quests for justice that underlie our shared humanity and provide the foundation for moving forward together. 

Because I teach Ethnic Studies, my students know that during the Chinese Exclusion Era, Chinese Americans were the first to be deemed “illegal immigrants” in the U.S.  They know that a mass lynching of Chinese took place in Los Angeles in 1871 and that Mexican Americans in the Southwest were subject to mob violence from that same period into the 20th century. I teach them that courts have defined who is “White” inconsistently and illogically over time. We are all connected.

Black and Latino students in my classes sometimes express surprise that while the history and contemporary experiences of Asians in the U.S. are distinct from other groups, there are also important convergences across our racial experiences. The power of Ethnic Studies isn’t only learning about one’s own group, but also learning about other groups.

The current political era is marked by division and lack of understanding about one another. There are few opportunities to engage in a sustained, informed conversation about the most pressing ways in which race matters when it comes to quality schools, the characteristics of our neighborhoods, and the type of health care we receive. There are even fewer opportunities to engage with others in conversations about policies that can move us beyond ideological conflicts. The promise of Ethnic Studies is that it provides a crucial step in this direction by helping us appreciate one another’s distinct histories and trajectories in this country.

That’s why the California Legislature should vote for AB 1460 and Gov. Gavin Newsom should sign it.


Janelle Wong is professor of American Studies and Core Faculty in Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park,

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