No governor of California has ever faced the enormity of the challenges that Gavin Newsom has confronted over the past six months. Even our most devastating natural disasters in the past caused instantaneous destruction followed by months and years of rebuilding and recovery. But the COVID-19 pandemic is the equivalent of a daily emergency that continually repeats — and will for months, if not years on end.
The economic, health and societal complexities posed by the coronavirus are unparalleled in our state’s history. But also consider our housing and homelessness crises; a wrenching discussion over racial justice and police reform; out-of-control wildfires and rolling blackouts; as well as a federal government whose attitude toward California ranges from uncooperative to downright hostile.
Under these unforgiving circumstances, Newsom made some decisions that were admirable — shutting down the state during the early stages of the coronavirus — and others less defensible, such as bowing to pressure from local governments to reopen prematurely. It will be years before a fair judgment on his stewardship can be rendered.
But before the end of September, Newsom will make a grievous mistake. Worse, it appears there is no way to prevent this entirely avoidable but almost inevitable misstep; the best possible outcome is to help him mitigate the damage that error will cause.
In the closing hours of this year’s legislative session, the California State Senate voted to pass Assembly Bill 331, which will establish a mandatory ethnic studies class for public school students. During an important national debate over race relations, there is an understandable argument for such a requirement. But while efforts by the Jewish Legislative Caucus and the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC) have improved the bill, the legislation Newsom almost certainly will sign still authorizes a model curriculum likely to exclude the Jewish experience from a discussion about the state’s diversity — and all but ignore the threat of anti-Semitism in lesson plans designed to address prejudice and discrimination against underrepresented communities.
As I’ve written before, the pretense for ignoring Jews (as well as Armenians, Sikhs, Indian immigrants and numerous other ethnic groups) from this discussion is dubious. Arguing that the field of ethnic studies in higher education has traditionally focused only on the experience of Black people, Latinos, Asian Pacific Americans and Native Americans conveniently ignores the distinction between a university student voluntarily choosing to study these four particular ethnic communities and requiring high schoolers to be taught about only these four groups.
Newsom already signed similar legislation for the California State University system, breaching long-held historical precedent that politicians should not interfere with academic content. In the current political climate, it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which the governor doesn’t also sign AB 331. Rather than wasting time, energy and oxygen attempting to convince Newsom to veto a bill he clearly is predisposed to sign, a much better strategy for the state’s Jewish community would be to focus our efforts on enlisting the governor’s assistance in rescuing the current draft curriculum from those who have worked to keep out Jews.
There is a successful precedent for such an approach. Last year, when the original ethnic studies draft included numerous anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli references, pressure from the Jewish Caucus and JPAC caused Newsom to call for a sweeping overhaul of that proposal. This year’s version has removed most (but not all) of the objectionable language, but the Jewish experience still is noticeably absent.
At some point in the next few weeks, Newsom is likely to make an unnecessary but predictable mistake by formally authorizing this version of ethnic studies legislation. Community leaders are appropriately registering their concerns with the state Department of Education and elected State Superintendent Tony Thurmond. Californians who believe in a truly comprehensive study of our state’s remarkable diversity should join those efforts, but they also should contact Newsom’s office directly to try to persuade the governor not to worsen his error.
California’s governor speaks regularly and eloquently about the importance of our state’s multi-ethnic heritage. Now is his chance to show us that he means it.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. Join him for his weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” at 11 a.m. PDT on Thursdays. Register for it here.