Ethnic Studies to be Required for Cal-State University Students

A San Francisco State Student holds a sign in solidarity and support of the students on a hunger strike to defend Ethnic Studies, during an a press conference on May 9, 2016.  (Melissa Minton/Wikimedia)

Students at California State University, the nation’s largest four-year public university system, will be required to take courses in ethnic studies under legislation advanced Thursday.

The state Senate bill would make ethnic studies a graduation requirement for all 481,000 CSU students across the 23 statewide campuses. The bill had been in the chamber for more than a year.

The history of ethnic studies is rooted at San Francisco State University — a 1968 shutdown of the campus eventually resulted in the nation’s first and only College of Ethnic Studies. Dr. Ramona Tascoe was one of the first students protesters to be arrested at SF State. She’s also one of the students featured in the 2016 documentary Agents of Change.

“The situation that we find ourselves in today, post George Floyd, is a seminal moment," said Tascoe. "It ties very directly to what occurred at San Francisco State 50 years ago." Tascoe explained that the negative impact of racism, discrimination and white supremacy continue to be an issue to day for "those who have been miseducated.”

Tascoe was a member of an expert advisory panel regarding the establishment of ethnic studies for grades K-12 within the state of California. “It is critical to the healing and the development of students of color and varying ethnicity to be able to learn about themselves and their history in its more accurate form,” she said in a phone call with KQED. Teaching a more complete history, including an ethnic studies curriculum, can destroy stereotyping for everyone.

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More recently, the discussion for including ethnic studies as a statewide requirement dates back to 2014, when Chancellor Timothy P. White formed a statewide committee called the CSU Task Force on the Advancement of Ethnic Studies. One of the 10 recommendations of the task force was making ethnic studies a general education requirement throughout the CSU system.

“Ethnic studies courses play an important role in building an inclusive multicultural democracy,” states the text of the bill.

A research review concluded that "evidence shows that well-designed and well-taught ethnic studies curricula have positive academic and social outcomes for students.” The research also stated that, “positive findings should not be interpreted, to mean schools can assign any teacher an ethnic studies curriculum to teach, or that students of color will automatically achieve more if ethnic content is added to the curriculum.”

For supporters, debate over the bill took on more urgency after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, saying the new rules would ensure students learn a more complete picture of American history and the experiences of marginalized communities.

Critics said the legislature should not impose course decisions on academia and that the public college system’s 23 campuses were already facing lean budgets because of the pandemic. According to the senate appropriations committee, the CSU estimates ongoing costs of approximately $16.5 million each year to provide ethnic studies courses.

On Thursday, after over an hour and a half of discussion, which sometimes turned personal as lawmakers shared stories about times they witnessed discrimination, the Senate passed the bill 30-5. The Assembly has to review minor amendments before sending it to the governor.

“For over 400 years, we have sanitized and white-washed history,” said Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, who presented the legislation authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego.

On Wednesday, a Senate committee also passed a bill that would place a ballot initiative to end California’s ban on affirmative action policies for employment and admissions in public colleges.

The ethnic studies bill would require California State University campuses starting in the 2021-2022 academic year to offer courses on race and ethnicity focusing on Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latina and Latino Americans. Students would need to take one 3-credit course to graduate. A separate bill requiring ethnic studies in high school has been sitting in a Senate committee since last summer.

California State University has opposed the measure for over a year and said it’s in the middle of approving reforms that would require students take courses on a wider array of marginalized communities that include Jewish, Muslim and LGBTQ groups. The university’s proposed Ethnic Studies and Social Justice requirement is before its board of trustees.

“The CSU requirement avoids setting a dangerous precedent for legislative interference and keeps the higher education curriculum setting process within those institutions,” Toni Molle, director of public affairs at the university, wrote in an email.

Supporting the university’s stance, Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Contra Costa, said courses on Armenian studies, for instance, would not count toward the bill’s graduation requirement. He warned of “political interference in the academy.”

Sen. Andreas Borgeas, R-Fresno, said schools in the middle of tough economic times would have trouble setting new courses and hiring professors to teach them.

But senators who backed the bill praised its target on requiring classes about racial minorities and people of color.

“It does not explicitly exclude the fact that others here in our country have experienced bias or discrimination,” said Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.

Bradford, who is Black, said many minorities aren’t even taught about their own communities and history in schools. As a freshman at San Diego State University, Bradford said he briefly took an African American studies course by the bill’s author, Shirley Weber.

“I dropped it three weeks into it,” he said on the Senate floor. “Because I had a better chance of passing microbiology than African American studies, because I realized how ill equipped I was to know about my own history.”

KQED’s Lakshmi Sarah contributed to this report.