Critical Race Theory Is What’s Still Wrong With California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum

It creates a discriminatory, hostile and disempowering educational environment.
February 23, 2021
Composite shot/People Images/Getty Images

Jewish organizations are patting themselves on the back for eliminating egregious anti-Semitism from California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) and for making sure that the Jewish experience is appropriately included in it. They have indeed done a great job. So are we done here?

Unfortunately, no.

The curriculum began its career as a California political football in 2016, when the Legislature required the state Board of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission to create the ESMC. In due course the Instructional Quality Commission’s Advisory Committee turned in its draft and, as the saying goes, the hummus hit the fan.

The curriculum excluded the Jewish experience. It contained a definition of Islamophobia but not of anti-Semitism. The draft called the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “freedom movement” while describing the resurrection of the Jewish state only as the “Naqba” (“catastrophe” in Arabic).

Not only Jews were upset. Armenian American and Sikh American groups, among others, complained that they ought to be included in a curriculum about California’s ethnic diversity. Consequently, Californians submitted thousands of outraged public comments.

In August 2019, the Los Angeles Times, voicing broader concerns, editorialized,  “California’s proposed new ethnic studies curriculum is jargon-filled and all-too-PC . . . . We have no objection to a course that broadens students’ thinking about race and gender and sexuality and history and power. But too often the proposed ethnic studies curriculum feels like an exercise in groupthink, designed to proselytize and inculcate more than to inform and open minds.”

Reacting to this controversy, Governor Gavin Newsom promised to strangle the draft in its cradle, saying it “will never see the light of day.”

Back to the drawing board. This time Jewish groups, including StandWithUs, Progressive Zionists of California and JIMENA made their views known. As Tyler Gregory of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council wrote on January 27, 2021, “Thanks to a diverse statewide coalition of Jewish Organizations . . . the plan’s original denigrating content about Jews and Israel, such as anti-Semitic rap lyrics, has been removed.”

Nevertheless, the model curriculum remains toxic, and not just to Jews.

The worm in the apple is critical race theory. This has been defined by Professor Derrick Bell as “a body of legal scholarship . . . ideologically committed to the struggle against racism, particularly as institutionalized in and by law. Those critical race theorists who are white are usually cognizant of and committed to the overthrow of their own racial privilege.”

The key ideas here are “institutionalized racism/systemic racism” and “racial privilege/white privilege.” Importing these concepts into ethnic studies yields “critical ethnic studies.” Critical ethnic studies, because it’s a species of critical race theory, is a form of radical activism which teaches that the essence of American history and culture is settler colonialism and white supremacism.

In critical ethnic studies, students are divided by race into oppressors and oppressed, in an immutable hierarchy of victimhood. Students with “white privilege” are identified and made to feel guilty before other students. It thereby creates a discriminatory, hostile and disempowering educational environment.

It creates a discriminatory, hostile and disempowering educational environment.

Of course, critical race theory isn’t 100% wrong. America does have elements of systemic racism, better understood as “residual” or “legacy” racism. For example, today’s de facto housing segregation and the resulting wealth gap between whites and Blacks can be traced in part to government redlining in the mid-twentieth century. Certainly this should be taught.

But the larger claim of critical race theory — that racism is the master key that unlocks the meaning of American society — is pernicious nonsense. The majority of California parents would be horrified to find this neo-racism in their children’s classrooms, because it is incompatible with the liberal democracy that the United States strives for and stands for. It would teach our children that America is a cartoonish villain.

This can’t be fixed simply by further amending the model curriculum. Even if critical race theory was eliminated from the curriculum, that would solve nothing, as it is merely a model curriculum. No school district is required to use it. In fact, some of the drafters of the original version are writing a “liberated ethnic studies model curriculum.” This version can be expected to restore everything repulsive in the original draft of the model curriculum. They plan to peddle it to individual school districts. Every school district in the state will become a battleground as proponents of conflicting visions of ethnic studies slug it out.

What is the solution? The Legislature can end the ethnic studies wars. It should create a statutory definition of ethnic studies that eliminates any critical race theory underpinnings. Doing so would engender a curriculum designed to increase students’ appreciation of diversity without instilling racial animosity.

The ethnic studies professors will gripe, “But that’s not what ethnic studies really means.” This will merely prove that if you ask the wrong question, you can’t get the right answer. The question isn’t, “Does the ethnic studies guild approve of the curriculum?” Rather, the question is, “What do we want to teach our children?”

We can mandate a humane and inclusive ethnic studies in order to foster a more welcoming and tolerant society. The alternative — ethnic studies infested with critical race theory — would teach California’s children to view themselves and each other not as individuals but through the prism of race, in a country they would come to believe is historically, unalterably unjust and contemptable.

The Legislature should act swiftly to rescue ethnic studies from critical race theory.

Paul Kujawsky is a former president of Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles and a member of the California Democratic Party Central Committee.

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