By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost
This is the sixth in a series of columns exposing “Missing Links” in high school history textbooks. Previous columns have focused on Indigenous peoples, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the role of women in history.
All I want is equality
For my sister my brother my people and me
Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie
Oh but this whole country is full of lies
“Mississippi Goddam” (1964)
In October of 2021, California became the first state to require ethnic studies as a graduation requirement starting in 2030. In doing so, the state essentially recognized and acknowledged that we have been teaching American history through the narrow lens of people of European descent, with textbooks that ignore the histories of too many.
This new requirement will be a separate course, focused on the marginalized groups. It will not require the restructuring of the current history curriculum or a restructuring of current textbooks. That is unfortunate, but if successful, it could inspire more widespread reform.
A course in ethnic studies is undoubtedly an important step and putting it together has not been without controversy. It took years of discussion and debate before the California Department of Education published a model curriculum.
This model curriculum is not meant to tell teachers what to teach, but is regarded as the first step in curriculum development meant to help educators determine what type of curriculum design is appropriate for their students and their learning goals.
The stated purpose of ethnic studies is to provide space for students and teachers to navigate our diverse society “by providing students with skills and language to analyze, respond, and speak out on social issues.”
One might wonder how and why the school system managed to focus primarily on stories of people of European descent for so long. One response, offered in the model curriculum, suggests it is the result of discriminatory and imperialist beliefs and practices on multiple levels. That sounds plausible, but it also may be a bit too academic.
It might be easier to consider who decided what was worth remembering and why. Frances FitzGerald’s response to that question is the best I’ve found. She concludes that most school texts were written not to explore but to instruct. In other words, school texts were not to be based on scholarly histories. They were written to tell students “…what their elders want them to know.”
This is the “whitewashed” history that too many of us got used to. I suspect that what happened to me offers an example of how it might have happened to others.
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From City to Segregated Suburb
I was l born in St. Vincent’s hospital at the center of Los Angeles where my parents lived in an apartment on Broadway near 7th street. What I remember from those years is curiously clear. I remember MacArthur Park, looking up at tall buildings, hearing traffic noise occasionally mixed with music, and eating at Clifton’s Cafeteria.
There were people everywhere. People of different sizes and different colors speaking a variety of languages. Some had money and some didn’t. Along Broadway, a few seemed broken by life, while others survived trying to sell stuff.
Around the time I started school my parents decided to use the GI Bill to buy a house in a rapidly expanding suburb of Arcadia. Obviously, I was not consulted.
When we arrived, we were surrounded by empty lots where, one by one, houses were built. The streets were perfectly straight. My father planted grass, some ivy and three tiny birch trees. Even as a child I found it boring. I missed the adventure of Clifton’s, the traffic noise and all those people.
Suddenly everybody was white. Our neighbors and my classmates were white. Even the teachers, nuns covered from head to toe in dark fabric, were white.
Our family had a television and everything we watched reflected that dominant whiteness. Sometimes I had a hard time sitting through the predictable programs, but I remember that whoever was in Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver all looked like our neighbors.
When my grandmother moved in, she installed a postcard-like collection of photographs surrounding her mirror. The biggest was of a white Jesus with blue eyes. Looking back, I was living in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
At least some of this overwhelming whiteness, this overwhelming sameness, was a result of the restrictive housing covenants which I first heard of around the time I started high school. I heard my father argue, more than once, against the restrictions on who could buy a house and where. He died before I could say thank you.
This suburban pattern of racial and economic segregation spread rapidly. It is at least partly responsible for those who now insist that the United States is, and always has been, a white, Christian, English-speaking country.
In the context of ethnic studies, the claim that the United States is white, Christian and English-speaking is labeled a “dominant narrative” which, in the model curriculum, is defined as “an explanation or story that is told in service of the dominant social group’s interests [and] achieves dominance through repetition…”
Clearly this “dominant narrative” led to widespread acceptance of elementary school books that, for decades, featured the super-white Dick and Jane. It also led to decades of history and literature books focused-on characters in that same innocent shade of white.
The stated goals of ethnic studies are to counter all of this by promoting a more inclusive narrative in which all communities are able to see themselves. That will require more than filling in the blanks; it will require disabusing students of myopic misconceptions.
Teaching Requires Confronting Misinformation
My first impression teaching American history in high school was a realization that a lot of information in the textbooks was misleading. My second realization was that it is difficult for students to abandon myth and to accept new information – even when it is obvious.
According to the model curriculum, ethnic studies did not arise in a vacuum, but “arose with the intent of giving voice to stories long silenced, including stories of injustice, marginalization, and discrimination, as well as stories of those who became part of our nation in different ways, such as through slavery, conquest, colonization, and immigration.”
As I mentioned earlier, the most fundamental misconception about the American past is the notion that the United States is a country of white, English-speaking Christians. But is it not obvious that, members of this group, as colonists and settlers, were responsible for the continuous attempts at the systemic replacement of Indigenous peoples by, physical removal, murder and attempted genocide?
Is it not clear to everyone that the Indigenous were here first? How can schools continue to ignore more than 5 million Indigenous survivors living all over this country.
The need for ethnic studies is also reinforced by the fact that there are more than 40 million Black Americans that can trace their roots to enslavement, nearly 20 million Asian Americans from a variety of places and more than 60 million Latino Americans living throughout the country, including many in areas taken from Mexico in 1848.
It seems obvious that schools should not continue to ignore the history of how and why these groups of people got here. And schools cannot ignore how each of these groups dealt with prejudice and still struggle to be accepted. As one would expect, one of the fastest growing groups in the country are those claiming to be of mixed race. They, too, need recognition.
For me it comes down to the question of how anyone can continue to support teaching a whitewashed history. Honest education requires students to analyze, interpret and examine information about all the components of our past and present. That is the definition of what it means to think critically.
Ethnic studies requires thinking critically about how the marginalization of disfavored ethnic groups has shaped public policy. That demands discussing different perspectives and different histories. That demands an examination of immigration policies over decades and that means discussing the social construction of race.
I am encouraged that California has made ethnic studies a requirement for high school graduation in 2030, but I fear that opposition is both active and quickly developing new alliances.
As of this moment those who oppose the new course in California have bizarrely charged that, “These courses are filled with hate for America and all America stands for.” Some opponents even wrote a letter to the community of Los Alamitos, claiming that ethnic studies curriculum “teaches children that America is based on white supremacy and that white people are racists, even if they don’t know it.”
If you have time to review what that opposition group wrote to the community of Los Alamitos you will notice an attempt to link ethnic studies to Critical Race Theory (CRT): “We are concerned parents, grandparents and community members, the majority of whom who live in the district, who recognize the danger of Critical Race Theory slipping into our schools through the ETHNIC STUDIES CLASS…”
This is nonsense. Is it not obvious that ethnic groups are not races? Is it not obvious that a course in ethnic studies is not a course in CRT? Is it not obvious that the underlying objection of all these groups is to the move away from teaching American history dominated by a biased concentration on the stories of Americans of European descent?
The difference between ethnic studies and CRT is clear. Ethnic studies is concerned with how the marginalization of certain ethnic groups has shaped public policy in the United States. CRT, on the other hand, is an academic field of inquiry used in universities and law schools, which, in very simple terms, examines how racism can become systemic and how it can be perpetuated by institutions, laws and regulations.
CRT has become the favorite bogeyman of those who oppose any change in how American society is studied, but it didn’t begin to attract attention until former President Trump directed federal agencies “to cut funding for training programs that refer to ‘white privilege’ or ‘critical race theory’ declaring such programs ‘un-American propaganda.’”
Opponents of ethnic studies seemed to have hopped on the bandwagon of opposition to a very loosely defined CRT. There are countless examples of this.
In 2022, for example, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed what he called the “Individual Freedom” measure which bans educators from teaching certain topics related to race. There is often mention of a fear that such a topic might make some students “sad.”
It is not clear if that means that schools in Florida will not be able to teach about slavery, but it might mean that teachers should not mention that the enslaved were black while most of the enslavers were white. Again, it is claimed that this might make some students sad.
Of course, all this is not enough for those opposed to inclusive history. So, they have begun to oppose diversity itself. Lately, the attempts to ban whatever is loosely related to Ethnic Studies and CRT have expanded their targets to include diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that “Republican politicians in early 2023 launched an assault on colleges’ diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts to recruit and retain faculty and students of color.”
In 2023, DeSantis got into the act when he announced his opposition to DEI programs in Florida state colleges. In his statement he explained that the new law would be, “prohibiting higher education institutions from using any funding, regardless of source, to support DEI, CRT, and other discriminatory initiatives.”
A Note of Hope
If you believe that teaching ethnic studies or teaching about the history of race and racism will result in students learning something important, I recommend watching W. Kamau Bell’s new documentary “1000% Me” streaming on HBO Max and DIRECTV.
If you enjoy the film (and you will) you might send a link to anyone in opposition to teaching inclusive history. The program is only an hour long and features a bunch of very smart kids. Perhaps it could even be shown at school board meetings accompanied by servings of multicolored popcorn.
Jim Mamer is a retired high school teacher. He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984. He served as History/Social Science department chair for 20 years and was a mentor teacher in both Modern American History and Student Assessment. In 1992 he was named a Social Science/History Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).