In Philadelphia and across the country, 2020 was a year of public awakening on issues of institutional racism and long-standing socioeconomic inequities plaguing Black people and other people of color. The protests following the murder of George Floyd raised awareness of racial injustices rooted in an untaught history. Overcoming our past means learning the lessons of history — and requiring that high schools offer Black, Latino, and other ethnic studies programs.
Ethnic studies present history from the standpoint of underrepresented groups in America, and acknowledges the pivotal role of race and racism in society, along with gender, class, sexual orientation, and other identities. The ethnic studies movement was a product of the civil rights, Black Power, and antiwar era of the 1960s and early 1970s, a time of heightened political consciousness and self-identity for young people.
In 1968, Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American students at San Francisco State University formed the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) to fight against Eurocentric curricula, a lack of diversity and inclusion among students and faculty, and a racist education system that marginalized their communities. TWLF demanded Black studies and other ethnic studies departments, orchestrating the longest student strike in U.S. history, at five months. Students at Berkeley, Howard University, and elsewhere followed suit, in a struggle that has since resurfaced on campuses.
Ethnic studies have impacted K-12 education, and in more recent decades prompted backlash. A 2010 Arizona ban targeting a high school Mexican American studies program prohibited curricula that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government,” “resentment toward a race or class or people,” or “ethnic solidarity.”
Yet, the tide is in favor of such programs. Philadelphia became the first major city to require African American history for high school graduation in 2005. Connecticut will become the first state to require ethnic studies in high school as of fall 2022, with an elective course covering “African-American, Black, Puerto Rican, and Latino contributions to United States history, society, economy, and culture.”
In California, a law enacted in 2016 provides for an ethnic studies “model curriculum” for kindergarten through grade 12 by March. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation requiring an ethnic studies course for students at California State University, but vetoed a bill requiring ethnic studies for high school students over disagreements over content and concerns it “achieves balance, fairness and is inclusive of all communities.”
And the Oklahoma Department of Education is taking a localized approach, announcing this year a statewide curriculum to teach the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, when a white mob of an estimated 10,000 people burned the affluent Black community of Greenwood to the ground and lynched hundreds.
Gaining momentum, ethnic studies makes education relevant and real for students. It boosts academic achievement, critical thinking, and problem-solving, encourages social-emotional learning and respect for other cultures, and instills pride. However, as Columbia University professor Gary Okihiro noted, “ethnic studies is not multiculturalism, identity politics, or intellectual affirmative action. Not an act of charity, ethnic studies was gained through contestation. As was astutely observed by Frederick Douglass, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’”
I was pleased to contribute to the upcoming book, Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, as an important addition to ethnic studies. However, the book reminds me there is so much untold history our children must learn.
If we hope to have an honest discussion about the future, we need a meaningful and critical understanding of the past — the whole story, not a whitewashing of history. Philadelphia is the birthplace of U.S. democracy and a constitution that regarded Black people as three-fifths of a person. This city has a proud history of slavery abolition and the AME Church, yet President George Washington enslaved Black people in the presidential residence at Sixth and Market. Philly also has a legacy of entrenched segregation and poverty, of police violence, and the MOVE bombing.
In a nation — and city — where the majority of youth are of color, more should be done to bring racial equity to the schools. One course is not enough. Ethnic studies should be infused in the entire curriculum.
David A. Love is a writer based in Philadelphia and an adjunct professor of journalism and media studies at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information.