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Fight for Ethnic Studies Moves to K-12 Classrooms

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Large group of teens holding signs that read "I support Arab youth"

Teachers have formed the Coalition for Liberated Ethnic Studies to defend and spread education that centers BIPOC knowledge, experiences and narratives in service of collective liberation.

Spurred by the raging debate over what children should learn in school, education activists have formed the new Coalition for Liberated Ethnic Studies (CLES). The Coalition builds on past generations of struggle for Ethnic Studies. It reflects the expansion of the discipline into elementary and high schools, drawing together Ethnic Studies K-12 teachers, teacher educators, youth and community activists from across the country to organize, support each other’s local struggles, and build power. And it comes together as Zionist forces join the fray to oppose the inclusion of Arab American Studies—and Palestine—in Ethnic Studies.

The right-wing war on education

Deep-rooted forces of white supremacy, emboldened by former President Trump, are surging to the forefront of US politics. Attacks on the content of public education have proved to be one of their clearest expressions and sharpest tools. Right-wing legislators and their populist base are on a tear to push the content of public education in the US back to the 1950s, if not to the 1850s. The attacks are happening at the state, district, school, and classroom levels.

Lawmakers in 42 states have introduced legislation that requires educators to lie to their students about the role of colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy in the history of the United States. Florida, for example, passed “Stop WOKE” and “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” legislation. Iowa passed House File 802, which prohibits teaching that the US or the State of Iowa is “fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist”; state officials there explicitly appealed to white nationalist sentiment to ban any mention of systemic racism or any other content that might make [white] students “uncomfortable.”  And US school districts have enacted more than 1500 book bans in the last nine months.

“Teachers are scared,” says Iowa Black Lives Matter at School leader Lisa Covington. “One kindergarten teacher asked me, ‘How am I supposed to teach about Ruby Bridges?’”

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Movement wins bring backlash

The Right’s crusade comes as backlash against the growth of powerful movements to bring anti-racist curriculum into K-12 schools. The most recent impetus for teaching students how to look critically at US history and current reality was the mass outpouring of rage and social consciousness following the murder of George Floyd. But the movement has deeper roots in radical education demands of the 1960s, including the SNCC and Black Panther freedom schools.

The 1968 Third World Liberation Front and Black Student Union strike at San Francisco State led to the country’s first Ethnic Studies program. Since then, Ethnic Studies programs have blossomed at universities across the country, and in more and more high schools. After almost 50 years of organizing by teachers and youth, California is about to implement an Ethnic Studies high school graduation requirement. Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program (banned in 2010 by the state legislature in a law overturned by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017) proved beyond doubt the academic and social benefits of decolonial, liberatory education for youth.

“The seven-year legal battle in Arizona that forced Chicanx scholars to prove the legitimacy of Chicanx Studies gives us a road map for the current attacks on Ethnic Studies and, specifically, the teaching of Palestine,” says Anita Fernández, co-founder and director of the Xicanx Institute for Teaching and Organizing (XITO). “We are in solidarity with Arab American Studies, as others were with us in 2010, as we all push forward for our collective liberation.”

Black Lives Matter in School burst on the scene in Seattle in 2016, when thousands of teachers and students donned Black Lives Matter: We Stand Together t-shirts, then spent a week exploring the principles of Black Lives Matter. Their actions spread to Philadelphia, then Rochester, NY, then cities throughout the country. Soon districts all over were looking critically at their history textbooks and literature choices and talking about how to portray the US history of settler colonialism, slavery and decolonial resistance more accurately. Even The New York Times was pushed to publish the 1619 Project, a deep dive into the impact of slavery on every aspect of US development.

The current struggle over Ethnic Studies reflects a new stage of the movement, with its expansion to grades K-12. For example, Mexican American Studies (MAS) scholars, educators, and community members fervently organized in 2014 for the inclusion of MAS in Texas public schools. Hundreds of activists, parents, and students demanded history that reflected and validated the experiences of students in the increasingly diverse state. MAS passed as an innovative course in 2015 and became an official statewide elective in 2018. African American Studies followed in 2020. “We organized and planned for Asian American Studies and American Indian/Native Studies to follow, but the reactionary Texas State Board of Education just created more roadblocks,” says Ethnic Studies Network of Texas and National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Tejas Foco member Valerie A. Martinez.

That’s a real fear because, as this new stage has gained momentum, so have the attacks on those who have been developing Ethnic Studies pedagogy and implementing it in classrooms. CLES has been formed “to act as a hub to raise awareness, share updates between regions engaged in building Ethnic Studies and support—through strategy, experience, and organized response—antiracist programs, districts, teachers and youth who are under attack. Ultimately we hope to become a people’s organization capable of uniting communities to advance and defend the building of an education for liberation,” explains Artnelson Concordia, coordinator of the Ethnic Studies program in the Santa Barbara, CA, Unified School District.

So what exactly is Ethnic Studies?

Ethnic Studies focuses on the most historically racialized groups in the United States: African Americans, Native Americans, Latinas/os, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (including Arab Americans). According to Minnesota Ethnic Studies leader Brian Lozenski:

Ethnic Studies by nature is interdisciplinary and helps us understand how our social worlds are constructed. Ethnic Studies helps young people make connections between anti-Black racism and environmental crises, between ableism and mass incarceration, between labor exploitation and heteropatriarchy. It represents an educational paradigm that demands young people not only think, but act.

Ethnic Studies centers the heritage knowledges and lived experiences of those who have borne the brunt of colonial devastation, including global Indigenous communities, women and genderqueer people, neurodivergent and the dis-abled, and those living in poverty. Ethnic Studies de-centers those of European descent and, for instance, inquires about the relationships between Black and Indigenous peoples, and dives into the formation and complexities of Afrolatinidad and Mestizaje. Ethnic Studies explores the colonial roots of the dispossession of Palestinian land and the creation of Zionism. Ethnic Studies deconstructs the racialization of Asian peoples and asks questions about colonization and conflict among Asian nation-states and the displacement of indigenous Asian populations such as the Hmong. Ethnic Studies demands language reclamation. Ethnic Studies demands an account of racial capitalism and its environmental impacts on the Global South. Ethnic Studies helps us connect so many struggles together in nuanced and complex ways.

Ethnic Studies is as much about who is teaching and how as it is about content. Ethnic Studies educators center the identities and strengths of students, especially BIPOC youth, drawing on their communities’ strengths and histories of resistance. They construct knowledge with their students, teach critical literacy skills, make connections to local communities, and build solidarity in the classroom and beyond.

In fact, the very skills and concepts taught in Ethnic Studies are those that help make sense of the attacks on the discipline.

What does Critical Race Theory have to do with it?

A caricature of Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become the punching bag for right-wing attacks on all antiracist education. So what’s the reality? Although Critical Race Theory and Ethnic Studies are distinct fields, there are important commonalities. Both fields are grounded in the understandings that race is a social construction; that systemic racism and white supremacy were central to the creation of our nation; and that racism’s lasting legacy manifests in the disparate outcomes we continue to observe in society today. Both also hold a commitment to challenge unjust systems at their roots.

Nervous school district superintendents across the country have rushed to explain that CRT is taught only at the university level, that it has no relevance in K-12 education. But this is a dangerously narrow reading of the discipline, and a capitulation to the rightwing. As originator of the term Kimberlé Crenshaw explains, CRT is “a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analyzing the ways that race is produced; the ways that racial inequality is facilitated; and the ways that our history has created these inequalities that now can be almost effortlessly reproduced unless we attend to the existence of these inequalities.” In other words, any deep exploration of the Montgomery Bus Boycott with second graders will be based on concepts central to CRT.

 “Anti-CRT policies, like anti-Ethnic Studies and anti-Black Lives Matter attacks, demand that teachers lie to their students about US history and current events, and get in the way of much needed social change,” says San Francisco State University Asian American Studies Professor Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales.  “Education is the key to unlearning the teachings of white supremacy. To achieve racial justice, we must teach about racial injustice—and about the resistance and social movements that have combated these acts of violence for generations. Educators must have the freedom to teach about race, racism, and resistance.  This is the only way we will be able to disrupt the legacy of white supremacy.”

Right-wing forces coalesce against teaching Palestine

Arab American students are among the most invisible students of color in standard US curriculum, so the inclusion of Arab American Studies in Ethnic Studies is critical. Given the devastating impact of Israeli colonialism on the lives of people across the Arab region, Palestine is a central issue for Arab students; studying Israeli settler colonialism in comparison to US settler colonialism is illuminating for all students, and at the heart of the discipline of Ethnic Studies. But even the suggestion that Palestine might be mentioned is enough to bring forth well-funded organized attacks from pro-Israeli lobby groups. California is a recent case in point.

When California’s legislature agreed to pass an Ethnic Studies graduation requirement for the public schools in 2016, the State Board of Education assembled a group of experts in the field to write a model curriculum for local districts to use as a resource. The curriculum they developed was based on the four core disciplines—Black, Native American, Latinx, and Asian and Pacific Islander studies (including Palestine)—and the decolonial principles and pedagogy of authentic Ethnic Studies.

As soon as Islamophobic and Zionist organizations like the Antidefamation League (ADL), the Jewish Community Relations Center (JCRC) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center saw the inclusion of Palestine in the curriculum, they organized an aggressive campaign to sanitize the curriculum and take out any mention of Palestine and Palestinian Americans.

In response, Ethnic Studies educators, youth, and communities formed the multiracial Save Arab American Studies Coalition to build support for authentic Ethnic Studies and to broaden awareness of the importance of teaching about Palestine. For two years, with support from the California Teachers’ Association, the coalition worked to defend the right of California’s six million K-12 students—more than 80% of them youth of color—to a curriculum reflecting their own experiences and histories.

In March 2021, the California Department of Education approved a gutted, all-lives-matter curriculum. All 20 of the educators who drafted the original version of the curriculum demanded that their names be removed. Many of them became the core of the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium, which provides curriculum and training in decolonial, authentic Ethnic Studies. And, as all struggles birth possibility, the struggle for authentic Ethnic Studies in California helped lead to CLES. According to Lara Kiswani, executive director of California Bay Area’s Arab Resource and Organizing Center, “We understood then that what happens in California has the potential to set the tone for the rest of the country, and in this case, that has been the unfortunate truth. What started out as an attack on Palestine became a full-fledged assault on the pedagogy and framework of Ethnic Studies.”

CLES offers a vision in direct opposition to that gutted curriculum:

Working collectively with grassroots movements, the Coalition for Liberated Ethnic Studies lifts up principles, policies, practices, and pedagogiesthat center the knowledge, narratives, experiences, and wellness of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities so that liberation of all peoples and relations are realized.

Youth in front

Since the student strike at San Francisco State, youth have been at the forefront of fighting for Ethnic Studies. “In 2001,” recalls Tintiangco-Cubales, “I worked with students on a participatory action research project for Filipina/x/o youth at San Francisco’s Balboa High School. The student researchers organized weekly lunchtime workshops on Filipina/x/o American history, culture, and identity; youth shared stories about the violence in their neighborhoods, economic hardship, familial challenges, and mental health issues. During the last session one of the students said, ‘We want you to be here every day and teach us.’” That led to an Ethnic Studies pathway from kindergarten to college in San Francisco, with a year-long course at two high schools, an elementary school, a middle school, and a community college.

“In 2011, students from Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program held walk-outs, organized protests and took over the school district’s board meeting to prevent a vote to ban the program,” says Fernández. “Tucson students participated in a ceremonial run to Phoenix in the sweltering heat to deliver a message to the Arizona legislature—don’t cut our roots!”

In Iowa City, students of color have been demanding Ethnic Studies as a high school requirement since at least 2016. They campaigned so successfully that the school district agreed to a class. The week it was to begin, it was canceled. The students protested at the school board meeting, but lost.

 “We let the students know that we don’t need schools to learn. Our ancestors did this before us,” Lisa Covington says. “The community started Saturday schools, having groups of kids from all over the area come to different community spaces to learn. Black Lives Matter at School needs to be integral in how students develop and learn. They’re so hungry to learn and to figure out what are the best ways to be part of a social justice community.”

Concordia agrees. “When you equip people, especially young people, to analyze and evaluate for themselves the issues most pressing and important to their lives so that they can exercise both individual and collective agency in finding solutions, you really see people-power in action.”

Next steps

Because Ethnic Studies is so critical to disrupting the long-standing trajectory of scores of young people of color in our public schools and to fighting for social justice in the eras ahead, CLES plans to garner massive support for the movement to defend and expand Ethnic Studies, building locally, regionally, nationally and beyond. CLES has already begun the baseline work of mapping what is happening in our communities, and educating ourselves about legal and organizing strategies for dealing with rightwing attacks. The next priority is getting everyone involved in cross-regional committees to really get down to work.

If you’re interested in joining CLES or getting connected to work in your area, check out the CLES website or contact the Coalition for Liberated Ethnic Studies: [email protected].

Featured image: Arab Resource Organizing Project members and allies at a San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education meeting. Photo courtesy of Lara Kiswani.


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