By AHSADAH JACKSON, age 11

Ethnic studies programs include classes that teach about diverse cultures and beliefs, and often highlight the histories of groups of people who have been oppressed. PHOTO: Latino USA
Ethnic studies programs include classes that teach about diverse cultures and beliefs, and often highlight the histories of groups of people who have been oppressed. PHOTO: Latino USA

Assemblymember Luis Alejo is trying to pass a bill in California that would require public schools in the state to offer ethnic studies classes. Ethnic studies programs include classes that teach about diverse cultures and beliefs, and often highlight the histories of groups of people who have been oppressed.

The Ethnic Studies Movement started in 1968 when African-American, Asian-American, Latino and Native American students at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University held a strike because they wanted to learn more about the history and culture of their communities. The universities did not offer classes like these, and students of color did not see themselves represented.

While some progress has been made since 1968, there is still a fight in Arizona for ethnic studies classes today. In 2010, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer banned them in Arizona Public Schools. A spokesperson for the governor said at the time, “[P]ublic school students should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people.”

But teachers and students who support ethnic studies reject the idea that these classes teach students to hate other races. Director of student equity in Tucson Public Schools, Augustine F. Romero, told reporters, “These courses are about justice and equity, and what is happening is that the Legislature is trying to narrow the reality of those things.”

After the 2010 law was passed, Tucson public schools held ethnic studies classes anyway. The state government threatened to take away funding (money) from the school district if they didn’t stop offering the classes, and in 2012, Tucson schools were forced to stop having them.

Assemblymember Alejo told reporters that the California law he’s proposing is a “direct response to what was happening in Tucson.” Alejo says, “When we understand each other’s communities, we understand each other better.”