Governor Newsom Vetoes Revised Ethnic Studies Requirement

November 9, 2020

By Lauren Weiner

California’s proposed ethnic studies high school graduation requirement raised concerns last year when Jewish Californians noticed that it featured anti-Israel rhetoric, and purported to teach students about bigotry and stereotyping of minorities without ever mentioning the problem of anti-Semitism. Lawmakers vowed to revise the model curriculum (Assembly Bill 331). It passed the state’s two legislative chambers overwhelmingly. But California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the revision, noting that it still fails to be “inclusive of all communities.”  

To be sure, language was added about teachers needing to ensure that “diverse viewpoints are respected.” And the new draft broadens its coverage of ethnic and religious bias by alluding to “other forms of bigotry including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”

But celebration of the Third World Liberation Front—the activists who first brought ethnic studies to California in 1968—still sits at the heart of the model curriculum. “Black studies and three other departments: La Raza studies, Asian American studies, and Native American studies” were demanded by the TWLF at that time, according to Tammi Rossman-Benjamin of the University of California Santa Cruz. The revised AB 331 still revolves around these four groups, despite the significant changes in California’s population in the decades since.

As shown by StandWithUs, a nonpartisan Israel education organization, some of the ideas expressed by TWLF were objectionable. One of its leaders back then, an English instructor at San Francisco State, made incendiary speeches that got him fired. Instructor George Murray “attacked Jewish people as exploiters of the Negroes in America and South Africa and called for ‘victory to the Arab people’ over Israel” (United Press International, October 25, 1968).

And the radical identitarians of more recent times, who single out Israel for criticism as an “apartheid state,” are cited in the model curriculum as they were before. The new draft, in an Appendix, has a list of goals that reads, in part:

  1. critique empire-building in history and its relationship to white supremacy, racism and other forms of power and oppression;
  2. challenge imperialist/colonial beliefs and practices on multiple levels; 
  3. connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice on the global and local levels to ensure a truer democracy; and 
  4. conceptualize, imagine, and build new possibilities for post-imperial life that promotes collective narratives of transformative resistance, critical hope, and radical healing.

This sounds less like high school than “critical theory” in grad school. It is taken almost verbatim from a jargon-filled collection of academic essays, Education at War: The Fight for Students of Color in America’s Public Schools, a 2018 volume edited by Arshad Imtiaz and Tracy Lachica Buenavista.

To be sure, the California Department of Education slightly altered the postmodern, multicultural lingo of the original (one of the changes was the introduction of a grammatical error). Then, too, the Appendix carries a disclaimer that the education department doesn’t necessarily endorse the politics in these materials, and that “local agencies and educators should review all content for appropriateness.”

The model curriculum’s being open for modification is cold comfort, though. It leaves school officials free to reinstate the first draft’s ideological excesses. Analysts at StandWithUs studied the revised draft and rightly asked, concerning item 6: “What is the definition of ‘resistance movements’ in this section and which specific movements should teachers and students connect themselves to? The lack of clarity leaves the door open to interpretations that will be harmful when the [model curriculum] is used in classrooms.”

Among the sources retained in the new draft is an article by Sunaina Maira and Magid Shihade entitled, “Meeting Asian/Arab American Studies: Thinking Race, Empire, and Zionism in the U.S.” Another is Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law, a book by Dean Spade. Professor Spade, a supporter of BDS, wrote therein:

The analysis of pinkwashing developed by Palestinian queer and trans activists is immensely useful for understanding the strategic uses of equality politics to forward state violence, by Israel and other governments.

Moreover, Imtiaz and Buenavista’s Education at War relies on such authorities as Steven Salaita, described in Tablet magazine as one of “BDS’s chief campus influencers,” and someone who “traffic[s] in hyperbolic calumnies about the Jewish state.” Professor Salaita is a “self-confessed despiser of Israel” who “wants to ban Zionists from the left,” according to Tablet’s David Mikics.

The new draft recommends teaching California’s high school students about “the effect that World War II and the Holocaust had upon the American Jewish population.” That is all to the good. On the other side of the ledger, an odd suggestion for a classroom assignment has been added: “Students will write a paper detailing certain events in American history that have led to Jewish and Irish Americans gaining racial privilege.”

The suggestion has a nasty ring to it—remarkable, considering that the whole ethnic-studies exercise is supposed to be about teaching every young Californian to treat those who don’t share his or her racial or ethnic background with respect. Such problems did not escape Governor Newsom’s attention, suggesting that the California Department of Education needs to go back to the drawing board.

Lauren Weiner’s writings have appeared in Commentary, the Wall Street Journal, Academic Questions, The Federalist, and many other publications.