The debate over ethnic studies is heating up and pitting some parents against each other across Orange County school districts.

Across California, there is a huge reckoning with how U.S. history is being taught in classrooms and what is being left out.  

Handling Hate

This story is part of an ongoing series exploring concrete steps Orange County leaders can take to tackle racial justice and hate across the region, amid a recent spike in hate incidents across the county and U.S. during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Some are calling on schools to put a greater emphasis on teaching the historical plight of people of color and expanding the scope of U.S. history through a course called ethnic studies with hope that a better understanding of such history could help quell racism and hate.

A handful of districts already offer this class as an elective while others are looking to add it to their curriculums by creating a new course and potentially spending money on training for teachers and textbooks. 

While some are pushing for such classes, not all parents want their children taking ethnic studies.

People like Alexandro Gradilla, an associate professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at Cal State Fullerton, said even the name “Ethnic Studies” causes some people concern.

“People get nervous when they hear ethnic and they’re like ‘Oh what does this mean and ethnic this?’ There’s such a lack of understanding because for many white Americans, they have the luxury of just being American, no additives, no modifiers, nothing,” Gradilla said.

“Ethnic studies is not necessarily something that is radical and outside the norm. Ethnic studies is just adding all the details to the story because we’re only getting a partial sanitized, bleached out version of U.S. history,” he said.

For parents like Brooke Harper in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School district, ethnic studies is about learning history as it is.

“I’m interested in a more equitable world and I absolutely believe that learning the full scope of history will create a more equitable generation,” she told the Voice of OC last month.

Los Alamitos high school on Dec. 11, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A debate on ethnic studies and social justice standards for teachers dominated public comments at the Los Alamitos Unified School District board of education workshop and meeting on April 13.

Two young students spoke out against ethnic studies at the meeting.

“If I am correct the basis of these new ideas is to say white people are racist and America is systematically racist. In my opinion this could not be farther away from the truth,” said a 6th grader in the district. “Why are the school’s teachings going to call me a racist?”

A few parents in the Los Alamitos community are organizing a town hall meeting tonight to address what they call “critical race theory” being included in the curriculum at the school district. Physical flyers of the town hall have also been reported to have been handed out to homes in the area.

These parents and community members see the course as an effort to teach kids that all white people are racist and to victimize students of color but Gradilla said that’s not what ethnic studies is about.

Gradilla said there are gross misconceptions about what ethnic studies and critical race theory is. 

He explained the theory is about looking at the ways in which laws and structures like redlining have been leveraged against people of color so they don’t have the same opportunity as others.

Gradilla also said that having a critical race perspective is about looking at the full picture.

“What critical race theory does point out is that despite the fact that African Americans have been denied full enfranchisement, full citizenship, and a sense of freedom and liberty that whites get to enjoy, African Americans still support this country,” Gradilla said.

He added that the theory is not about teaching students that all white people are racist.

“It has nothing to do white people and I think it’s inherently so egotistical and racist for white people to think ethnic studies is about them,” Gradilla said.

He explained that ethnic studies simply highlights the presence and role of people of color in the building and the development of the United States. 

“When we look at mainstream history of the U.S., we only really focus on a small segment of society and mostly we’re looking at land owning people,” Gradilla said. “What they’re ignoring is who actually did the building.”

Some in the county say the opposition towards ethnic studies is a good indicator of why such classes are needed and that people are spreading this idea of critical race theory to undermine ethnic studies.

“We need tolerance education at Los Al,” one high school senior said at the Los Alamitos Unified School District meeting last week. “As a community that has struggled with racism and all manners of xenophobia we need to as a community denounce hate wherever we see it.”

“Please stop saying this class is going to teach us that white people are devils.”

Will Ethnic Studies Classes Make Orange County a More Tolerant Place?

The movement for ethnic studies gained momentum in the wake of global protests last year over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, which sparked a national discourse on how to make educational institutions more equitable and inclusive.

And with the recent surge of violence and hate crimes against Asian Americans in cities across the country some people are pointing to education as one of the potential answers to addressing hate.

“Orange County is the third largest county of (Asian & Pacific Islanders) in the United States. I think that it is incumbent on districts to really take a close examination of their ethnic studies courses and especially telling the stories of Asian Americans in Orange County,” said Michael Matsuda, superintendent at the Anaheim Union High School District.

“We would like to stop hate–after the Atlanta shooting, especially. As a senior myself I worry for my Asian community. We would like to call for unity and compassion,” says Vanessa Hong Van, 66. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Matsuda’s own parents were put in internment camps and he himself is concerned with the increased rise in hate crimes and incidents based on race.

But not all agree with the superintendent.

“You want to teach our young children to hate their classmates and to hate themselves, that white kids are oppressors and should be apologizing for their skin color and Blacks are minorities or victims,” said a tutor at the Los Alamitos school district meeting last week.

Others like Leah Davis, a parent in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, hopes ethnic studies courses will make people in her community more open minded and while unsure if this is the effect they will have, acknowledged the need for these types of classes.

“We need accurate Black history taught in schools and at a very young age. ” Davis said in an interview back in February.

“Unfortunately, when people hear ethnic studies, they think by teaching them accurate history that it means hating the white person. That’s not what it means at all. Just because you’re shining a light on what happened to Black people, does not necessarily mean you’re teaching them to hate white people.”

Gradilla said ethnic studies classes could make Orange County a more tolerant place.

“When people have truth in the whole story, it becomes harder to hate somebody, it becomes harder to dehumanize them,” he said. “I think that’s what’s really important about Ethnic Studies and the current political climate that we’re in.”

Either way, an ethnic studies course could become a high school graduation requirement in California, under a proposed state assembly bill — something the Anaheim Union High School District is considering regardless of the state’s actions.

Anaheim Union High School District Weighs in on Ethnic Studies

Savanna High School on Jun. 22, 2020. Savanna High School’s “Johnny Rebel” mascot was changed after the Anaheim Union High School District Board of Trustees voted in 2017 to remove references to the Confederacy from school symbols. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The district currently offers ethnic studies as an elective as well as offers courses through Fullerton and Cypress colleges to the nearly 30,000 students they serve.

“We have a task force now looking into different types of models for ethnic studies,” Matsuda said about ethnic studies as a graduation requirement. “And this is happening concurrently with implicit bias training for staff and administrators.”

The task force was created in response to the state legislature being considered on ethnic studies.

Jaron Fried, an assistant superintendent at the district, said Anaheim Union is looking to move forward with such a graduation requirement regardless of what the state decides.

“We’ve been a pretty progressive district where we’ve had ethnic studies, even before this was something that was being discussed,” he said.

One of the options the board of education will consider is integrating ethnic studies in core classes like english, history and even in music which Matsuda said teachers are doing a lot anyway.

Fried said they will be speaking to the board about their recommendations for the requirement in May and what the timeline would look like.

The Fight For Ethnic Studies at The Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District

A screengrab from the Placentia Yorba Linda School District meeting on Feb. 9, 2021. Credit: Better Together Facebook Live Stream

Last July, the board of trustees unanimously approved a resolution condemning racism and promising to implement an ethnic studies course for the district’s high schools following a petition and pressure from some educators, parents and alumni to reform the curriculum.

The development of the course will be a part of the district’s 2021-22 Local Control and Accountability plan which will go before the board in June.

If the plan is approved, a task force of various teachers will be formed to “to ensure diverse input,” according to an email from the school district’s spokesperson Alyssa Griffiths,

The course will go through the district’s curriculum council before it gets to the board.

For four years the district has partnered with Fullerton College to offer classes like Asian American studies and Chicano/a studies to high school students. 

In a district of 24,000 students, 40 students have utilized those classes this academic year. 

Meanwhile some parents are concerned about racism in the Placentia-Yorba Linda community.

At the March board meeting, Chris Palicke, a parent referred to the Coronavirus as the “Chinese Coronavirus” while Another parent called it the “Wuhan Kung Flu virus from China.”

“This is what our country and our school district is and there are people who are just becoming aware of the racist parents and other stakeholders,” said Harper about the comments made.

Other parents and Board Trustee Leandra Blades are not convinced. 

At the April board meeting Blades spoke on the importance of equity but said it didn’t include ethnic studies.

She also posted on her Facebook an article claiming that the state’s proposed ethnic studies requirement “urges students to chant to the Aztec deity of  human sacrifice.”

If the elective ethnic studies is approved by the board it could be implemented by the 2022-23 school year.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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