The ethnic studies movement has been underway for years and is now poised to enter the mainstream, raising tough questions for educators and policymakers about how to present such material to teenagers. Teachers around the country are already offering ethnic studies classes, units or lessons on their own initiative, citing a growing urgency to confront racism, sexism, homophobia and other entrenched social inequalities.
Two years ago, the Indiana legislature mandated that high schools offer an ethnic studies elective. As approved by the state’s education department, the class teaches about the contributions of ethnic and racial groups, various cultural practices, as well as such concepts as privilege, systematic oppression and implicit bias. And now three states – California, Oregon and Vermont – are trying to create authoritative statewide templates that, advocates hope, will make it easier for schools to adopt ethnic studies.
Advocates believe they are within striking distance of making ethnic studies a graduation requirement in high schools across the country, making it a prerequisite for preparing students to navigate the world, much as learning about the Western tradition had once been. They say the shift to ethnic studies appears inevitable because of the nation’s changing demographics, the growing awareness of white supremacy and other forms of systemic discrimination, and a newfound political clout for the ethnic studies movement.
“We don’t want students to have the option not to take ethnic studies,” said Melina Abdullah, a professor Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and a board member of the national Association for Ethnic Studies. “It is as important as taking a lab science.”