In April 1992, violent riots broke out in Los Angeles after an almost all-White jury (one juror later “came out” as biracial 10 years later) handed down a not guilty verdict in the case of Rodney King, an African American man who four LAPD police officers tasered, subdued and beat severely with batons. During the unrest that followed, low-boiling tensions between African American residents in the neighborhood and immigrant Korean business owners heated up to an explosive six-day period of burning, looting and killings that left more than 50 people dead, about 1,000 more injured and over a $1 billion in property damages, mostly to the local Korean-owned businesses. Although both groups existed side-by-side in the same community with only little dust-ups here and there, it took a flash of anger to expose long-harbored frustration and deeply-rooted cross-cultural intolerance.
In 2014, President Obama commissioned the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing after police officers shot and killed an African American teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. One of the recommendations the group made to the nearly 18,000 police departments across the country is that they add multicultural history lessons to the training of law enforcement officers.
Supporters of ethnic studies in California’s public schools and universities agree.
They say when people learn about other cultures, they become more open-minded, empathetic and tolerant – and communities become more enriched socially and otherwise by this.
That’s why a group of lawmakers, academics, students and activists – some who have been working to make Ethnic Studies a college-level requirement in California for more than 50 years – are rallying to support a bill making its way through the legislature, AB 1460. If passed, the proposal would require that the approximately 481,000 students enrolled in all 23 California State University (CSU) campuses take one 3-credit unit of any qualifying Ethnic Studies course before they graduate.
“The times in which we live make the call for an ethnic studies requirement all the more urgent. There is much discussion about hate speech, but what we are witnessing is much more than a matter of emotion and rhetoric. What we are witnessing and experiencing is White supremacy in terms of policy and violence,” said Melina Abdullah, chair of the Pan African Studies Department at California State University Los Angeles. “Hate crimes are soaring. As educators, as ones invested in teaching our state to think critically, we have a role in turning the tide. We know ethnic studies to be part of the solution.”
On June 26, Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), who authored and sponsored AB 1460, testified during a hearing on the bill before the Senate Education Committee at the State Capitol.
“Ethnic Studies has a demonstrated benefit for all students – students of color and White students,” said Weber, who is African American. She is also the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and a former professor at San Diego State University, where she taught for 40 years and helped to set up the Africana Studies Department.
“Regardless of major, students who took Ethnic Studies courses graduated at a much higher rate than their peers in their major who did not take Ethnic Studies classes,” added Weber. “Ethnic Studies enable students to succeed academically, professionally, and socially, resulting in them making valuable contributions to the community, the country and our democracy.”
Since introducing AB 1460, Weber has gained the support of a wide range of Californians, including student groups, CSU professors and several of her colleagues in the Assembly and Senate, including Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood).
But during the Senate Education Committee hearing on AB 1460, two Democratic senators, Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Steven Glazer (D-Contra Costa) stated that they support the goals and the idea of Ethnic studies in higher public education – but they both stepped back from voting for the bill.
Their indecision led the committee to table the bill, which is expected to be heard again as early as next week.
For Pan, he’s hesitating, the lawmaker told Weber, because he does not want to legislate making Ethnic Studies a requirement since a task force commissioned by CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White already made that recommendation in 2016 for schools across the CSU system.
A year later, White issued an executive order telling CSU schools to adapt it.
Weber says many of the Academic Senates at CSU schools have yet to implement White’s guidance. That is why, Weber said, she resorted to introducing statewide legislation to ensure that students receive a cross-cultural understanding of the four main ethnic groups – Native Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans and Asian Americans – who call California home.
“I have tremendous reluctance to have curricula dictated by the legislature,” said Pan, in whose district Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders and other minorities make up more than 60 percent of the population. “We should let the faculty take the lead on this.”
Like Pan, Glazer says mandating by law that schools require Ethnic Studies could be the beginning of a “slippery slope.”
“There is a potential in the future that the folks that are up here could be people with a different philosophical view than us,” he said. Glazer, whose district is just under 50 percent minority, says he’s worried about setting a precedent that others could misuse later.
Other senators disagree with Pan and Glazer.
”True reform does not occur without bold leaders decidedly challenging the status quo. It is time to ensure that professionals trained in the nation’s most diverse higher education system are exposed to an inclusive and multiethnic curriculum,” says Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), who is African American and supports the bill.
Senator Steven Bradford (D-Los Angeles), who is also African American, says every year the California State Legislature recognizes June 19th as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” when the last slaves in the United Sates were freed. But that history, he points out, is not taught in the state’s public schools.
“We owe it to our students to provide a liberating education process that accurately reflects their history,” says Bradford, “which is why AB 1460 requiring ethnic studies in the California State University System is critically important.”
Ethnic studies in the United States began in the CSU system at San Francisco State University a little over 50 years ago on March 20, 1969, after students there held the longest strike in the history of the country, calling for more diversity in the school’s curriculum. Today, 22 out of the 23 CSU schools have some level of Ethnic Studies course integration in their curricula.
CSU is the most ethnically and racially diverse university system in the nation with minorities making up about 74 percent of the student population.
Weber says she has worked on requiring Ethnic Studies at CSU for the 7 years she’s been in the legislature and her entire adult life before that. During that time, Weber says she has heard the reasons Pan and Glazer are giving for their pushback, among many other explanations.
Yet, she does not plan to give up or pull back.
“I’ve been in the Ivory Tower and tried to paint it multiple colors,” said Weber. “It did not happen. We complain about the hatred in California. We complain about the lack of information people have. We complain about students not being challenged to think differently. We have to look at this not as a Black and Brown thing. We have to look at this as rescuing California and making it the diverse state we want it to be.”
Send a letter to your legislator in support of or opposition to AB 1460: https://calegislation.lc.ca.gov/Advocates/