California Leads the Way in Educating Students on Racial History—But Vigilance Is Still Needed

Students from the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University in March 2016. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a law requiring students to complete an ethnic studies course to graduate from high school. (San Francisco Foghorn / Flickr)

Journey to Justice: A Critical Race Theory Primer” is a joint initiative between Ms. magazine, the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) and the Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice. The primer includes articles, essays, lesson plans, an annotated bibliography and a COMloquium conversation that addresses and examines the perils of teaching critical race theory from kindergarten to college settings. Enjoy the sample below. To explore the full primer, head here.

“Don’t Mess With Texas” is a widely known slogan of pride for residents of the 28th state in the union—but it could apply just as well to California. When it comes to progressive politics, the Golden State can’t be messed with, historically leading the way in many areas including the environment, labor and education.

And though the entire nation seems to be plagued by the recent histrionics surrounding critical race theory (CRT), there are no state-level attempts to ban its teaching on the horizon in California. That said, there are concrete examples of exactly why such an approach is needed in the state’s schools, starting as early as kindergarten.

A September 30 L.A.Times editorial laid out the reasons why CRT should be embraced in the state’s K-12 school system:

“At the heart of critical race theory is the concept of systemic and institutional racism—the notion that racism isn’t an occasional aberration of individuals acting in biased or hateful ways, but entire systems that have built up over this nation’s history that put people of color at a perpetual disadvantage and that will take purposeful action to remedy. Just look at the situation in our schools. Research shows that Black male students incur harsher discipline at school than white ones, for the same infractions.”

That editorial appeared one day after ProPublica, known for its public interest investigative journalism, published a lengthy piece analyzing data from the Los Angeles County Sheriffs on their 2019 (pre-COVID-19) pandemic interactions with students in the Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles. It showed that “sheriff’s deputies in the Antelope Valley have disproportionately detained and issued citations to Black teens on public school campuses.”

During that time, six public high schools accounted for about 300 of the city’s 4,000 stops—or roughly 7 percent. When we compared the race of teens stopped with the demographics of those schools, the disparity was clear: Black teenagers accounted for 60 percent of the deputy contacts on campuses but made up only about 20 percent of the enrollment in those schools.

In California in 2019, Black teenagers accounted for 60 percent of the deputy contacts on campuses—but made up only about 20 percent of the enrollment in those schools.

Earlier this year, the State Board of Education approved a curriculum for ethnic studies to be used in school districts throughout the state. And last Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law requiring students to complete an ethnic studies course to graduate from high school. The curriculum’s approval was unanimous, and California has become the first state to mandate such coursework—another example of how the state leads the way forward.

While the state is known for its liberal, progressive politics, we should not be lulled into thinking that those politics are without blemish. After all, this is the state where the Black Panther Party was born. Frederick Douglass told us long ago that there is no progress without struggle, and Ida B. Wells said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

That means that while efforts to ban critical race theory—such as those in some Eastern and Southern states—may not currently be on the horizon, we must continue to pay attention and be prepared for what the future may hold.

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Thandisizwe Chimurenga is a freelance journalist, author and student. Her interests are in media, social/political movements and gender. She is the author of No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant. She has articles published in Black Power Encyclopedia: From Black is Beautiful to Urban Uprisings, Why Don’t the Poor Rise Up: Organizing the Resistance, Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence and Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect: Police Violence and Resistance in the United States.