Support for Ethnic Studies in Public Schools Missing from the Democratic Platform on Education

Recently, on MSNBC, U.S. Representative Steve King (R-IA) asked a question to host Chris Hayes and other panelists in order to confront the idea that “old white people” no longer being in complete control of the GOP is a good thing. 

I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about? Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?

Let’s clarify his confused and flawed response by remembering what he was responding to: white people not being in complete control.  The bottom line is that Steve King demanded proof that all racial/ethnic groups who aren’t white are equal to whites because he doesn’t believe it exists.

Others actually agree with Rep. King and this is nothing new.  That’s because throughout history people have continually revised, omitted, or erased the history of marginalized peoples as they’ve contributed to civilization through their blood, sweat, and tears be it by slavery and exploitation or by their own volition and diligence.  So why are we surprised that the beliefs like those of Rep. King exist?  And how can we expect others to respond more adeptly than Chris Hayes to such nonsense?  We were never taught nor required to learn in our schools about the history, culture, and various contributions of marginalized peoples.  Rep. King’s words and Hayes’s fumbled response (which he more or less admitted to) are solid evidence that we need to require ethnic studies programs in our nation’s public schools.  Unfortunately, the Democratic Party’s platform has no mention of this, which amounts to a huge failure for the Party.

The Democratic Party’s platform covers many educational issues by taking a stand for civil rights issues, such as opposing high-stakes standardized testing, dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline and replacing it with a cradle-to-college pipeline, and joining the fight against the privatization of public schools.  But what good is there in accomplishing these purposes if we don’t teach our children the history and culture of all peoples in our nation while providing them with a critical lens through which they can and should critique the world they live in?

Ethnic studies programs can provide that curriculum and the lens that comes with it.  For example, in such a curriculum, I might learn how movies like Birth of a Nation and Martyrs of the Alamo used the same formula to promote white superiority. That formula entails striking fear in the hearts of whites via false racist narratives by portraying blacks and Mexicans as brutish violent criminals who would rape white women if given the chance.  But when we see white men enter into the picture to take control, they civilize the savages (in a very noble and respectful manner, I might add) and restore order.  Now that I know this, I’m able to recognize Trump’s narrative about Latino immigrant criminals and rapists for what it really is: fear mongering racism.

Still, there are other and equally great reasons for requiring ethnic studies courses in our schools.  First, the revision, omission, or erasure of history is oppressive.  Period.  If you want to subdue a people, then take away their identity.  Take away their history, their values, their worldview, their names, their language, and whatever else you can think of and then give them your culture, your values, your worldview, your names, your language, etc.  Not only does it work to oppress and marginalize communities of color, it also breeds and perpetuates ignorant and hateful views like that of Rep. King throughout time.

Additionally, the history of minorities in the U.S. is just as American as the history of whites in the U.S.  Again, many might not know that because they were never taught much about the history of marginalized peoples in our country.  How much were we really taught about Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, W.E.B. Du Bois, or Geronimo?  Do we know who Emma Tenayuca, Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it, Yuri Kochiyama, the No-No Boys, Larry Itliong, and Ramon Emeterio Betances are?  Do we know the stories of the massacre at Wounded Knee, the repatriation of millions of Mexican-American citizens during the Great Depression, or Black Wall Street?  All of this is U.S. history and is as important as what we currently discuss in our public schools. 

By omitting these histories, we are teaching our children a fraction of U.S. history and we are giving them a very limited worldview.  And though histories of U.S. minorities extend outside of the U.S. (or before different regions of the U.S. came under our government) there is much that we analyze in European history.  Keep in mind, European historical events may not impact all racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. to the extent that it does white people in the U.S.  There is nothing inherently wrong with learning about those events.  However, we are lying when we argue that the entirety of the history of U.S. minorities isn’t worth studying in school. 

Finally, research has demonstrated that ethnic studies programs have a positive impact on student achievement, working to close the achievement gap between whites and students of color in our nation. In Tucson, Arizona, the Mexican-American studies courses “corresponded to a significant, increased likelihood” of passing rates on standardized tests and graduation rates for Chicano students previously struggling academically.  If this is the kind of impact ethnic studies can have, why are we not pushing this in policy and curriculum nationwide full force?

The Democratic Party needs to reassess their platform and include support for ethnic studies programs in our nation’s public schools. This is a civil rights issue that is being debated nationwide, especially in California, Arizona, and Texas.  Will the Democratic Party join in to work with communities of color and help them keep their histories, cultures, and identities alive?  Or will it ignore this issue while people like Rep. King perpetuate lies of white superiority?  Let’s hope they choose the former option.

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