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The Debate Over Ethnic Studies in California

As an education reporter, I’m always looking for good news on my beat. So I perked up back in 2016 when sources in California started buzzing about a study out of Stanford University showing that ethnic studies classes in San Francisco had helped improve grades and attendance among teenagers who were at risk of dropping out.

That research was persuasive to policymakers, and, after years of flirting with the idea, California education officials started to write a state curriculum in ethnic studies. In 2021, state lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted a law requiring high schools to offer an ethnic studies course by 2025, and making the subject a requirement for graduation from high school starting with the class of 2030.

Over the last month, I’ve been checking in on how that mandate is rolling out across the state — and why the Israel-Hamas war has made the effort much more complicated.

The key tension comes down to the difference between what many legislators thought they were getting when they voted for ethnic studies — a type of broad multicultural curriculum rooted in local history — and what ethnic studies actually is, as defined by university scholars with doctorates in the field.

The discipline has roots in student activism in the Bay Area in the 1960s against racism, segregation, colonialism and militarism. It looks at four groups in particular: Black Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans. And the Palestinian experience of displacement is central to ethnic studies.

Some scholars see the Palestinians’ situation as perhaps the most crucial current-day example of the pattern of settler colonialism that brought Europeans to the Americas and led to the displacement and genocide of Native Americans.

Jewish Californians have a broad range of views on the Israel-Hamas war and on Israeli politics more generally. But almost from the beginning of discussions over California’s ethnic studies curriculum, Jewish groups in the state have raised concerns about it — not just over how Israel would be talked about in classrooms, but also about how central a focus the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be.

They have worried that teaching about the conflict without giving equal attention to many other foreign humanitarian crises would paint Jews as oppressors and would seed antisemitism.

The California Department of Education has asked schools to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in their world history courses, and not in ethnic studies. But some ethnic studies scholars and educators have rejected that approach. They say the conflict is a crucial topic in their field — not only because teenagers are encountering so much discussion of the war on social media and are naturally concerned about it, but also because Palestinian and Arab American students deserve to see their own histories reflected in the curriculum.

I hope you’ll check out my article, which goes into detail about this debate and explains the lawsuits, course materials and activism that may affect how ethnic studies is taught in your own community.

Dana Goldstein is an education reporter for The New York Times.




The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has named two wolf packs that were discovered in the state over the summer.

The two new packs, called the Beyem Seyo pack and the Harvery pack, were discovered in Plumas County and Lassen County, bringing the total number of known active wolf packs in California to five.

In its quarterly report, the department noted the existence of several other small groups of wolves, as well as individual wolves that have been spotted across the state.

The news, reported last month by the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that protects endangered animals, is a welcome development for California’s wolf population. Gray wolves are native to California but were nearly driven to extinction in the 1920s. They are now protected under state and federal endangered species laws.

“Wolves belong in our state,” Amaroq Weiss, a senior wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement, “and we should do everything we can to ensure they thrive.”


Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Soumya Karlamangla, Maia Coleman and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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