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Thomas D. Elias: Ethnic studies battle continues despite improvements

Thomas D. Elias: Ethnic studies battle continues despite improvements

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With just two months before the legal deadline for the state Board of Education to decide on a new ethnic studies curriculum for all California public schools, new concepts have been introduced into the latest proposal and new people added to those who might be studied. Still, old prejudices figure to be reinforced.

Among the new individuals to be studied for sure, if this program is adopted, are some that few would object to: Former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, onetime Hawaii Congresswoman Patsy Mink, American Indian Movement founder Madonna Thunder Hawk, ex-President Barack Obama and the late former Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first-ever serious Black presidential candidate. Among the new peoples: Irish- and Jewish-Americans, via new units on anti-Semitism and Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jewry.

Things get more controversial with other persons on the suggested list teachers would have the option of adding: Onetime Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, self-proclaimed “lifetime Communist” Angela Davis, convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal, the vocally anti-Semitic Arab-American leader Linda Sarsour and Emiliano Zapata, founder of an early 20th Century agrarian revolutionary movement that still influences governance in Mexico.

One thing these individuals have in common: All are or were figures on the left. There’s no room for American conservatives here, no one like the Black Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina or newly-elected Republican Congresswomen Michelle Steel and Young Kim of Orange County, both Korean-Americans.

There are also no Irish or Jews, or Indians or Armenians on the list of individuals to be studied for sure, no Chinese-Americans, no immigrant business leaders like the founders of Zoom, Google and other seminal California companies. That makes the list highly partisan, allowing the right to plausibly label it a propaganda instrument.

There is also an objectionable, though optional, lesson on Aztec gods including Texcatlipoca, supposedly the originator of human sacrifice and other problematic practices.

Most of this will satisfy educators from the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, dedicated to teaching about the prevalence of white supremacy, racial privilege and oppression in American history. But there’s nothing here about more establishment minority group members, like the scientist Booker T. Washington.

This is deliberate, as made plain by state Schools Supt. Tony Thurmond. The curriculum, he said last August, “needs … fidelity to the four ethnic groups that launched the (critical ethnic studies) movement” during a 1968 student strike at San Francisco State University: African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. He did not explain why the new curriculum must stay faithful to ideas conceived more than 50 years ago by emotionally heated students lacking solid academic credentials.

The planned curriculum would also introduce some new concepts, bound to bring loud protests. Most prominent of those is the idea of “racial privilege,” introduced by Thurmond’s staff rather than by the generally leftist members of the state Education Department’s Instructional Quality Commission, designer of the first two versions of the curriculum.

This segment of the program would feature a unit on Irish- and Jewish-Americans “redefining themselves as white and American” and thus gaining alleged racial privilege they may not previously have had. Never mind that both Irish and Jewish immigrants faced massive discrimination upon arriving in America, overcoming college admission quotas, ethnic and religious exclusions in rental leases and land convenants by dint of hard work and academic effort.

The implication is that other Caucasian immigrant groups like German-Americans, Italian-Americans and Hungarian refugees arrived with white privilege, no matter how difficult their lives may really have been. Meanwhile, Jews — who maintained their identify for millennia in the face of hundreds of massacres even before the Holocaust — would be portrayed as striving to shuck their longtime identity to present themselves as white, just to get ahead.

This concept is only very marginally accurate, at best, and should have been laughed off, but now appears on its way into public school curricula. What’s more, the California program figures to be copied in other states.

In short, the newest version of the proposed ethnic studies program may be improved, but still contains gaping holes, questionable subject matter, plus some bigotry.

Which means it needs still more improvement before anyone dreams of adopting it.


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Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column. He is author of the book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.”

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