Ethnic Studies Graduation Requirement: A Good Idea?

By Anna Hanuska

Last fall, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have required high school students to complete a one-semester ethnic studies course in order to graduate, disappointing many activists. His decision came mere weeks after signing a law requiring graduates of the California State University (CSU) system to complete an ethnic studies class. 

An ethnic studies graduation requirement in high school and college are fundamentally different things. In college, a student can pick from many options of classes, usually focusing on in depth studies of specific cultures. However, a high school class moves much slower, and though specific culture classes may be offered, the majority of students would likely opt for a default, overarching ethnic studies class. This is where the flaws of such a requirement become apparent. 

Attempting to create a model curriculum that accurately and equally represents every culture in one semester of high school is near impossible. The lack of an adequate model curriculum was actually the reason for Newsom’s unexpected veto. One main issue is that the proposed curriculum focuses on the four main groups that ethnic studies historically emphasizes: African Americans, Chicanos and Latinos, Native Americans and Indigenous people, and Asian Americans. This list diminishes other ethnic groups that also face discrimination (and for some, genocide), like Sikhs, Armenians, and Jewish Americans. 

Though the most recent draft includes two lessons on Jewish Americans, they focus on those of middle eastern descent, dismissing other Jews as having “conditional whiteness,” and accusing them of “chang[ing] their position on the racial hierarchy… gaining racial privilege.” The assertion that Jewish Americans do not face discrimination when antisemitic hate crimes are on the rise is disrespectful, and the implication that they want to climb the hierarchy dangerously echoes the views of hate groups. These inaccurate lessons have been condemned by many Jewish groups, including the Los Angeles-based newspaper Jewish Journal, and board members of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Additionally, some have raised concerns about the distribution of material in each section of the four major ethnicities. For example, there are at least three times as many sample lessons in the Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies section than any other section. However, the problem lies not in the over- or under- representation of any one race, but in the challenge of shoving every minority into a semester-long class. Rather than teach diversity and tolerance, this potential class is pitting activist groups against each other, as everyone wants their fair share of class time.

Instead of dedicating a class specifically to ethnic studies in high school, social studies curricula for every grade, K-12, should be reformed. Every time a child learns about an area of the world, an important global event, or even local history, the impact on relevant ethnic groups should be addressed. The anti-Asian racism during the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, should be connected as a modern consequence of the sentiment at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Issues that Native Americans face today should be focused on instead of glorifying the murderous California Missions, and the recent events that led to the Black Lives Matter movement should be connected to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. If not every ethnic group is already in some way mentioned in 13 years of social studies curriculum, it needs to be reformed anyway. Including the modern challenges each group faces will help kids connect better to what seems like the distant past, and foster tolerance throughout education, not just in one semester of high school.