Ethnic history is American history. California became the first state to recognize that truth.
Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a comprehensive Ethnic Studies law, making California the first in the country to make courses covering the political, social, and historical perspectives of various ethnic groups a requirement to graduate from public high school. Schools must offer courses by 2025, but students aren’t required to take them until 2029.
“It’s been a long wait,” said Assemblyman Jose Medina, a Democrat from Riverside, who authored the bill. The legislation has taken years to fully develop and pushed through a number of obstacles. Last year, Newsom vetoed a nearly identical bill, after citing concerns from the Arab American and Jewish community, who argued the initial draft of the bill failed to address the groups’ complete history.
Medina, highly confident in the new bill, said that schools are now prepared to model a curriculum that is more “reflective of social justice.” The push towards a more “equitable” curriculum gained traction during the racial protests last summer. Among the demands of demonstrators was an improved system of education and a curriculum that reflected the current racial reckoning.
Leading those protests were young people. Multiple protest events were organized by high school students. The relevance of these protests and America’s racial past isn’t abstract for high schoolers; some students face its effects daily. Whether it be discrepancies between low-income, high-minority schools and majority-white schools, a lack of financial and instructional resources, and lower graduation rates, students of color don’t always have equal opportunities compared to their white counterparts.
Focusing on the history that caused this deep inequality is the first step forward. Accordingly, the approved curriculum includes lessons like “U.S. Housing Inequality: Redlining and Racial Housing,” “#BlackLivesMatter and Social Change,” and “AAPI and the Model Minority Myth.”
These lessons will create a better understanding of different cultural experiences, help students develop skills to engage in difficult discussions about race, and allow students to see the importance of their own racial identity.
And just as students are reclaiming all of America’s history - just as activism is becoming a critical part of student life — conservative alarmists are starting to snatch it away. Republican-state legislatures are actively attempting to ban “Critical Race Theory,” the idea that racism still permeates social institutions. Some of these bans extend to mere conversations about privilege, institutional racism, and oppression. Most of the legislation is deliberately vague, which worsens the confusion regarding what is allowed in classrooms.
These bans threaten the basic right to freedom of speech, and the right to truth. Recognizing systemic racism never meant accepting America as inherently wicked; it’s accepting that America has yet to align itself with its founding values. It’s not about indoctrination and creating a sense of disloyalty. It’s about a different kind of patriotism — one that highlights the exceptionalism of black history and the overall struggle of minorities. These attacks on critical race theory are not only an example of denialism, they attempt to deny students the opportunity to seriously reflect on American history and society.
In the swirl of political hellfire, California’s bill is a sign of hope. In a letter to the California State Assembly, Newsom wrote that students “deserve to see themselves in their studies, and they must understand our nation's full history if we expect them to one day build a more just society.” This generation can’t afford to surrender to ignorance. Students have to fight for their history, and in doing so, they are fighting for their future.