"The Fight for Ethnic Studies in Ca.," a forum organized by the San Francisco Arab Resource and Organizing Center on Feb. 2, 2021.
"The Fight for Ethnic Studies in Ca.," a forum organized by the San Francisco Arab Resource and Organizing Center on Feb. 2, 2021.

Latest salvo in ethnic studies curriculum: Its writers want no part of it

Fed up with what they describe as concessions to “right-wing interest groups” and “pro-Israel lobbyists,” the originators of California’s ethnic studies model curriculum for high schools are now demanding their names be stripped from the final draft.

The announcement Tuesday by Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, one of the co-chairs of the advisory committee that oversaw the drafting of the controversial curriculum, indicates just how strongly the 18 committee members, made up of ethnic studies and social studies teachers and academics, oppose revisions made by the California Department of Education in the 18 months since the draft’s release in 2019.

During that time, the CDE has received a flood of complaints from Jewish groups opposing the curriculum’s anti-Israel content; others, including the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, saw the first version as overly ideological, jargon-heavy, one-sided and ultimately inappropriate for high school students. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and other public officials expressed serious concerns about the first draft.

Tintiangco-Cubales informed an estimated 2,000 attendees of the decision during a Zoom forum organized by the S.F.-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center called “The Fight for Ethnic Studies in California.” The event featured speeches from nine professors and activists influential within the discipline, including famed activist and author Angela Davis.

Tintiangco-Cubales, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, said the determination was accompanied by “outrage” that “some of the loudest voices being heard, and the people making decisions about what ethnic studies should and should not be in the State of California, have never even taken an ethnic studies class.”

She said the curriculum, which is more than 400 pages, has been “watered down” and the discipline’s “guiding principles [have been] compromised due to political and media pressure.”

The State Board of Education is expected to vote on the final draft in mid-March, as California is required by law to pass the model curriculum by March 31. It will be used as a guide by high schools offering ethnic studies courses (another  bill has been reintroduced to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement).

At the heart of the advisory committee’s opposition is the view that the discipline of ethnic studies — which formed in the Bay Area in the 1960s and early ’70s at SFSU and UC Berkeley, out of protest movements organized by the Third World Liberation Front — must adhere to its radical roots by including strong critiques of capitalism and colonialism, concepts that some critics say are too ideologically charged for high school students or are presented in a one-sided manner in the model.

Some opponents of the CDE revisions also say the movement to broaden the umbrella of ethnic groups covered to include Jews and Armenians, for example, bastardizes the curriculum from its original focus.

“Ethnic studies teaches us to challenge the simple ideas of allyship,” professor Andrew Jolivétte said, arguing against efforts to make the curriculum more multicultural. Jolivétte is the chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies at San Diego State University after 16 years on the faculty at SFSU. “Ethnic studies isn’t about allyship. It’s about kinship.”

The first draft of the curriculum not only mentioned the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, but featured it prominently in a compact glossary of terms, describing BDS as a “global social movement” that “aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions.” It was compared to other social justice movements more familiar to high school students, such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

The glossary defined Islamophobia, Cisheteropatriarchy, Anthropocentrism and many other terms, but did not mention antisemitism, an omission many Jewish groups took issue with.

Also, the curriculum listed controversial figures, such as members of Congress Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, as role models for Arab American students and referenced the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, celebrated on Yom HaAtzmaut by many Jews all over the world, as the “Nakba,” the Arabic word for catastrophe.

Following outrage, including from the mostly liberal California Legislative Jewish Caucus and from pro-Israel Jewish organizations across the political spectrum — including Jews of color with S.F.-based JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council — the CDE removed references to BDS and to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a whole. Two sample lessons were added on Jewish Americans, focusing on antisemitism, Jews of color and “conditional whiteness” afforded Jews in the diaspora.

There were a number of other edits unrelated to Israel. For example, the current version encourages instruction about ethnic groups present in a given school’s local community, and terms some found confusing or inaccessible, such as “hxrstory” (to remove the “his” from history), were struck.

The announcement from curriculum drafters that they no longer condone the final product represents in part an acknowledgment from the committee and other organizers — including the Save Arab American Studies coalition, which has been lobbying the CDE to preserve the original draft — that efforts to reinsert BDS and other content critical of Israel are not likely to succeed.

Tintiangco-Cubales and the other advisory committee members wrote to the CDE on Wednesday, informing education officials they wanted no part of the final version. Curriculum writers also signed the letter, which had 20 signatories in total.

“We were not fully consulted throughout the process of the curriculum development and significant parts of the curricular text do not fully reflect the work of past or present Ethnic Studies teachers/educators,” the letter said.

Tintiangco-Cubales made a second announcement during the forum, that she and others on the original advisory committee, plus dozens of professors in the field, planned to launch an independent coalition to draft a new, “liberated” ethnic studies curriculum model.

She said work has already begun, “and yes, Arab American studies is included in the study of Asian Americans, specifically including lessons on Palestine. I want to be clear that that’s a choice that we made.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.