June 15th, 2022

A brewing controversy has erupted over what kind of Ethnic Studies school districts should adopt. [hyperlink:] . Should it be inclusive or “liberated”?

This debate comes at a perfect time for school districts readying to spend $50 million the State of California just released for their ethnic studies curriculum development and teacher preparation. 

An inclusive ethnic studies program is what the California legislature envisioned when it directed the State Board of Education to prepare an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum.  

Such a program: 

  • offers students an opportunity to learn about California’s ethnic groups’ histories, cultures and contributions as well as their struggles, including ethnic groups living in the school’s surrounding community.
  • Instills a sense of injustice at, and willingness to confront, past and present racism and discrimination at the hands of individuals and institutions
  • addresses the residual effects of past discriminatory actions.
  • makes students aware of the facts of minority life in America, both positive and negative including the progress that has been made in combating discrimination and where the country is still falling short.
  • connects the struggles of these groups to comparable efforts by other marginalized Americans to secure fair treatment, inclusion and dignity such the labor union movement or the fight  against anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim prejudice.
  • highlights ethnic groups’ positive impact on the broader society
  • teaches respect for individuals who, despite discrimination, have led exemplary lives. 
  • avoids the binary of victims and oppressors and a zero-sum mindset where gains for one group mean losses for another.
  • advances the importance of an individual’s characteristics — such as character, personality, interests and talents — to their path to purpose and success. 
  • seeks to develop a deeper understanding and respect for our cultural diversity and that a person’s race should not be seen as denoting inferiority or superiority but as one positive aspect of that person’s identity
  • encourages students to appreciate all people’s unique makeup and work to eliminate bias; thus rebuffing messages that paint ethnic groups in a negative light and countering humanity’s tilt towards tribalism.
  •  that society’s main currency is power and privilege.   

Inclusive ethnic studies does not prioritize group membership over the uniqueness of each individual and so does not:

  • emphasize group identity as the primary lens to understand history, society, culture, and politics. 
  • Hold present-day whites as a group responsible for previous mistreatment by some racist whites in the past with whom they have no connection. Instead, schools should be developing a willingness of all contemporary students as Americans to recognize and abhor past and current bigotry in all forms and to confront continuing transgressions.
  • Erroneously imply that all members of specific broad racial groups share or should share the same view or experience similar privileges, disadvantages or conditions. For example, all whites weren’t or aren’t white supremacists. Large numbers of white Americans supported abolition in the nineteenth century, backed and marched with Blacks in the Civil Rights Movement, and view members of minority groups as individuals. Similarly, there are huge differences among white Americans—highly educated coastal elites and heartland working class, liberal and conservative, and ethnic background. Likewise, all Blacks or Hispanics aren’t completely beaten down by oppressive institutions, live in stressed circumstances, or think alike.
  • Separate students with activities based on hypothetical privilege and minority disadvantage.
  • Undermine the belief that while minority group membership constitutes one positive aspect of a student’s identity, the task of our schools is to broaden students’ horizons beyond that narrow category by equipping them to make choices in their lives of who they want to be.

Inclusive ethnic studies programs that adopt these principles inspire all students to embrace their own and others’ cultures, develop their individual potential, appreciate our common humanity, and continue the important work advancing America’s quest for a more perfect union. 

In contrast, there is a new genre of ethnic studies — “liberated” ethnic studies — marketed as “the authentic” version.  With ideological roots in the 1960’s Black Power movement’s neo-Marxist and liberationist and university-promoted critical theory, “liberated” ethnic studies is part of a political movement centered on race consciousness that seems intent on alienating youth from our institutions. Presenting non-whites as victims and whites, individually and collectively through institutions, as oppressors, liberationists hope to create activists who will radically transform their schools, their communities, and our nation. 

Liberated ethnic studies proponents:

  • Sideline racial progress and focus on immutable differences.  Some dismiss individual merit, tolerance, the rule of law, and compromise through reasoned discussion–values which prevent anarchy and authoritarian rule—as simply ways to maintain privilege. 
  • Disregard the importance of class and economic status. Is race really the defining characteristic of a mother working two low paid jobs? Or a top Black or Hispanic scientist? Is the white male child of a rust-belt, distressed family privileged over the non-white daughter of two university professors?
  • Mirror the tendency of some members of the public’s tribal instincts, racism, or even race hatred to lump minority groups together in broad racial categories and then never get beyond the race or color of those people. There is no reason why schools should reinforce these biases.  Schools should be trying to broaden students’ perspectives and help them avoid a narrow, superficial view of the world.
  • Believe that the lived experiences of minority groups prevail over objective reality and discount the opinions of non-members of those groups. Hold that members of minority groups can’t be racist.
  • Teach that capitalism is inherently oppressive even when tempered by pro-social legislation. Treat the United States as forever tainted by colonialism and advocate large-scale transfers of inhabited land to indigenous Americans.
  • Display the detrimental habit of denouncing anyone opposing their views as racist—an obvious ploy to shut down objections.
  • Most distressingly, liberationists’ emphasis on victimization narrows students’ perspectives and deprives students of the agency they need to reach their fullest potential. 

A few years ago this crucial choice — between an inclusive and a liberated ethnic studies — came into dramatic focus when members of the California State Board of Education and the public, supported by Governor Newsom, sharply criticized the first California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum draft. Developed by liberated ethnic studies advocates, their draft was replete with liberationist principles, jargon, lessons, and activities. 

The Department of Education took to heart 100,000 public comments expressing concern and the State Board approved a more balanced guide.   

Undeterred, liberationists now are approaching individual school districts with curriculum framed around the same principles that caused this commotion.  Their materials are easy to spot.  The reading list will often feature Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Tolteka Cuauthin’s Rethinking Ethnic Studies.  Their content will often emphasize “critical consciousness,” “indigeneity,” “hegemony,””oppression,” and “decolonialization.

This Spring, these controversial principles surfaced in liberationists’ press to make ethnic studies a University of California admissions requirement along with “heteropatriarchy” and questioning “objectivity,” “neutrality,” “freedom from bias,” “color-blindness.” “meritocracy,” and “traditional Western educational approaches and practices” in their guidelines and criteria.  Setting off alarm bells, their proposal has been thwarted for now.

So local educators be alert.   Scrutinize the ethnic studies options presented to you. Adopt an ethnic studies course and accompanied professional development that is inclusive.  As important, be transparent.  Welcome input on your proposed curriculum and resources and discuss them openly in public forums.

Developing young citizens devoted to a unified, diverse, and democratic society with dignity, fair treatment, and justice for all Americans is a daunting but crucial educational task.

For our democracy to survive, each new generation must embrace democratic values and respect a common humanity. Consequently, school districts should provide fact-based history courses and a robust civics education. Ethnic studies courses should complement these efforts by teaching critical thinking skills that value context and objectivity and reinforcing our country’s long-held democratic practices and ideals.  


The Fight for Our Democracy

In the past few years the ideals and procedures of our experiment in democratic governance and individual rights in a multi-racial society have come under increasing attack. 

Critics have argued that the present system has resulted in unacceptable levels of inequality and left behind too many of our citizens. Some worry that neo-liberal philosophy has weakened government protections and allowed oligarchs too much influence. They also fret that our checks and balances have prevented ameliorative action.  Or that the country has devolved into toxic tribalism.

Others fear that the overemphasis on the individual and a society driven by commercialization and self-centeredness has corrupted our communal and moral fiber.  Or that elite dominance has eroded traditional values. And some are dismayed by the continuing existence of racism, white supremacy, minority poverty, violence, and the slow rate of progress living up to our ideals.

There is some merit in these various complaints, but instead of using our democratic processes to correct the imbalances, as the 19th Century progressive movement did, many want to discard the hard-won protections of liberal democracy itself. 

On the extreme right the attack is led by authoritarians spurred by white supremacy and white nationalism, a belief in replacement theory, and a willingness to use violent methods to create and maintain a neo-fascist state. They yearn for the US to abandon liberal democracy and emulate Russia, Hungary or the Jim Crow south based on caste. Even less extreme advocates on the right are willing to prevent the peaceful transition of power and spread massive lies if they don’t get their way, and a growing number are willing to use violence to achieve their ends. 

Christian nationalists are another faction on the extreme right willing to sacrifice our pluralistic democracy.  They want to establish a Christian nation (the more extreme of them promote a Christian nation where whites are dominant) governed by religious dogma (shades of Sharia  law)—the US as Gilead. 

On the extreme left the attack is led by those willing to override due process or freedom of speech rights to impose harsh penalties for the slightest deviation from anti-racist dogma.  Some revolutionaries devoted to a university-spawned critical theory denigrate our liberal democracy and want to replace our freedoms and protections with woke commissars, a society organized around group identity, unequal treatment determined by oppressor/oppressed status and re-education rituals. 

Notice the similarities between these left and right extremists. The extreme left mirrors the racists who characterize humanity by hierarchical group identity with harsh consequences for all members of an arbitrary, demeaned racial class—they just reverse the positions. 

If we are to preserve the liberal democracy bequeathed to us, educators must make sure each new generation understands and attaches to democratic ideals, norms and reasoned debate to resolve our differences. Students should be encouraged to take an active role as adults in our experiment of self-governance. The schools should be instilling a love and respect for our democratic experiment and a feeling of communion with all Americans. 

As the most famous Black Americans Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. both maintained, the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, such as equality and dignity for all, should be a beacon to guide our continuing efforts to create “a more perfect union”. Not surprisingly, liberated ethnic studies proponents dismiss those sentiments as evidenced by their omission of these heroes. Their programs actively work to undermine those values.

Our democracy is under attack and we must assure that each new generation attaches to democratic beliefs. To that end, it is crucial that each school district provides a robust civics education and history program. Any ethnic studies program should be consistent with those courses and reinforce our democratic ideals and practices. 

A good curriculum incorporating these values as outlined in the California History-Social Studies Framework encourages citizenship grounded in democratic principles and habits. That framework also includes expositions of why these principles are crucial to the health of our nation and what happens when they start to erode as has occurred in some failed democracies and is beginning to happen here. Additionally, it recommends a history which includes this country’s struggles to live up to those ideals–sometimes successful but often falling short. 

So, to reiterate, local educators and parents be warned. Scrutinize the options available to you. If your district plans to adopt an ethnic studies program and/or accompanying professional development, it should be humane and positive and avoid the indoctrination of the liberationist genre (these are now available). And, most importantly, any proposed curriculum should be discussed openly and at length in a public forum.


Bill Honig is the former California State Superintendent, and subsequently Chair and Vice-Chair of the California Instructional Quality Commission (IQC). As an education student in a multi-ethnic Teacher Corps, as state superintendent initiating ethnic task forces to help teachers integrate minority’s history and culture into the curriculum, and as the chair of the IQC committee which drafted the California History/Social Science framework, he was part of the effort to tell the story of our state’s diverse groups. The IQC held well-attended, lively hearings.

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