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The Challenge to Ethnic Studies

The strategies white parent activists used to challenge ethnic studies in California schools and why we need to understand how counter-curricular movements gain momentum and take hold.
Illustration of diverse group of students in circles

What does it take for counter-curricular movements to take hold in school districts? There's a lot more to it than you might think, according to University of Hawaii at Manoa Assistant Professor Ethan Chang. Chang's research explores how a group of white parent activists challenged ethnic studies in California, catching the attention of news media nationwide. Although the movement didn't eliminate ethnic studies as part of the curriculum, it had good and bad repercussions. 

In this episode of the EdCast, Chang details the strategies activists used to challenge the curriculum in California schools, and why it behooves us to better understand the tactics made by counter-curricular movements. 


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast. Researcher Ethan Chang wondered how to provide greater access to ethnic studies in schools about the same time that a curricular counter-movement against the subject was on the rise in California. It was just a couple years ago when white parent activists in a suburban California district began pushing back against the call to require ethnic studies as part of the state curriculum. Their opposition, often positioning white boys as victims of ethnic studies, garnered nationwide coverage.

As part of Ethan's research, he interviewed dozens of activists and sat through countless school board meetings to better understand what was going on. His research reveals how this group organized and what we can really learn from it. First, I asked him what ethnic studies is really about.

Ethan Chang

Part of the motivation for this work is a real lack of clarity around the definition of ethnic studies. It's defined as an interdisciplinary program, a curriculum and a pedagogy that centers the insights of Black, Indigenous, and minoritized peoples. At its core, it's about offering young folks a fuller accounting of the history of the nation, of cultivating a deep sense of self-love, of responsibility to community and to movements to make the world better.

Kyle Beckham and Artnelson Concordia have a really wonderful metaphor, they use a high-definition TV and they say, "If we imagine each pixel is like a perspective, right now our schools offer young folks a really hazy or cloudy vision of the world." We have very few pixels, right?

Jill Anderson: Mm-hmm.

Ethan Chang: The prevailing perspective in U.S. public schools is predominantly a Euro-Western perspective of history. And they say ethnic studies is really about adding more perspectives, right? It's not taking anything away. It's complementing that history. It's adding more pixels so that we can get a sharper, more precise image of the world and who young folks can be in that world and what they might do to transform the world that they have inherited.

Jill Anderson: Even though you looked specifically at California and what was happening there with their push to have ethnic studies as a curriculum requirement, I feel like we're seeing a lot of opposition just to any kind of curriculum that has race or social justice around the country. What do you think is driving this resistance?

Ethan Chang: I think fundamentally what we're seeing is that ethnic studies is one particular case, really that is looking at challenges to schooling, and this is drawing on the work of Cheryl Harris, challenges to schooling as the property of whiteness. So, Cheryl Harris has been just so informative for me and my work here, and she talks about whiteness as organizing social relations in the same way that private property shapes who can access, use, and enjoy private goods.

So, the example that I often give with students, or one that seems to resonate is, imagine you have the keys to your car. You control who gets a ride in that car, you decide where you're going to head, you decide what kind of music you're playing. That's access, use, and enjoyment. That same way that you have authority over those relations with your vehicle are the same ways that whiteness has shaped the access, use, and enjoyment of public institutions. So, not private goods, but public institutions. In our case, schools.

Historically, whiteness has been that access that has shaped who can access public schooling, who can use them, who has access to AP rigorous curricular or quality teachers, and who can enjoy schools, who can feel like themselves, who doesn't feel disciplined, who can wear their hair any style that they want to. And Thandeka Chapman and colleagues, and Richard Roscoe, have been super, super helpful in my thinking.

And really, now if I try to make that leap to ethnic studies through their scholarship, ethnic studies is trying to detract classes. It's unlocking the doors, it's connecting the classroom into the community. It's really troubling the access question. It's also reshaping who can enjoy public schools, who can use public schools in ways that they learn about their own histories, their own sense of self, their own communities, and the movements that have really shaped opportunities impacting their lives. So, I think in those really fundamental ways, ethnic studies is troubling that idea of whiteness as underpinning public schools.

And then of course, we see that with everything from the 1619 Project, so there's its own counter-movement there, right? The 1776 Commission came up right after that. Gloria Ladson-Billings, her piece on critical race theory and the tremendous and expected, perhaps backlash to the ways that CRT has been mobilized as this project "poisoning" the minds of young Americans. So, in many ways, I think that's why we're seeing so much fire, we're seeing a lot of investment or reinvestment in what schools as "bias-free" or neutral institutions are, but really that have normalized or naturalized these white norms and standards of achievement.

Jill Anderson: In your recent research, you're looking at how white parents particularly, mounted some kind of resistance to the ethnic studies curriculum in California, Central California district in particular. Why do you think these parents were against ethnic studies?

Ethan Chang: I would say the ordinary aspects of who was mobilizing or who was organizing, right? These were grandparents, these were dentists, these were accountants, these were nutritionists. These weren't folks wearing a KKK cap and gown and there was something ordinary about it. And to your question, what mobilized them to show up on a weekday night for three hours to testify, to organize on the sides of streets in this particular school district, to lobby and start GoFundMe campaigns and other written forms of organizing? I think it really goes back to the idea that schools have been a site of deep struggle and wrestling over who we are as a nation and who we might become as a people.

And when that curricula or the standards of achievement in schools are being transformed in the ways that ethnic studies, inverts our conventional understandings of nation building, of who we might be as a people, what we might become as a nation of nations, that really is not just a threat to achievement, that is a threat to identity, it's a threat to a shared identity. And part of the project is trying to unpack the ways that, in this case, predominantly white parents really celebrated individualism, but there is a shared white identity in this case that they were investing in, that was about exclusion, that was about ownership over schools, that was about ensuring that in this particular case, white children broadly, but white sons and grandsons in particular, were not "targeted" by ethnic studies. That their reading of history was really constant with our myths of the Founding Fathers among other national myths that we continue to celebrate today.

Jill Anderson: Yeah, it was very interesting to read about because it sounds like in some cases, some of these white parent activists were talking about how we're all the same and there's no differences, and employing that kind of view to their logic.

Ethan Chang: Yeah, absolutely. And that's where I think a lot of the scholarship on race evasiveness as a pretense or a desire to not talk about race in particular, even as race operates like that invisible current or that fog that shapes every part of our public institutions and even outside public schooling and just our social relations in society. So, there's a desire to not name what was fundamentally structuring schools in many cases, and that was a very common theme.

Jill Anderson: What kind of strategies did you really find interesting that white parents use to try to undermine the ethnic studies?

Ethan Chang: Another great question, which I think gets at the heart of my research here, which is not to just say that these counter-movements exist, but to really take seriously the strategizing, the insights, the creative and crafty maneuvering, that in this case, this predominantly white parent organization engaged in. And I discussed three strategies. The first one was crafting innocent victim narratives. Positioning in this case, white sons and grandsons as victims or targets of ethnic studies.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Ethan Chang: It's a familiar and common and widespread organizing or rhetorical or narrative strategy, but to see how that was done and to see how parents and grandparents and other members of the community really shared in that narrative and really moved public conversation on ethnic studies as an assault, as victimizing white sons and grandsons, was fascinating, right? And devastating. It's the kind of work that breaks your heart.

And so, that was one strategy. Another one was just this really deft ability to craft coalitions, just the ability to bring other organizing factions, in this case it was dyslexia advocates, parents who don't really have an interest in opposing ethnic studies, but listening to their critiques of the district and really the reasoned critiques of the district, in this case, dyslexia advocates calling out the district's inability to meet their children's IEP needs. But the way that they recruited folks who were dyslexia advocates into their movement really revealed to me just how creative, how savvy, and really the amount of coalition building needed to not only get ethnic studies to be a graduation requirement, but to sustain it as a viable program of study in K-12 schools.

And the last strategy that I tried to unpack is how these local movements really spread across place and time through the use of digital media. Something said at a school board meeting, it's published in the local news, it's taken up by Fox, it's taken up by various forms of alt-right wing news sources. And it just becomes this common sense of, "This is the idea of ethnic studies." And it was just, again, fascinating for me to see how quickly that happened and how little effort was expended by the particular opponents of ethnic studies, right? There's often so much work required for those advocating for ethnic studies to form partnerships with media and the journalists. And in this case, they just said something at a school board and they had their whole platform became national news without any central organizing, without expending a communications director, without really needing to put intention or design, at least as far as I was able to discern.

Jill Anderson: That was really fascinating because it was just so savvy from a media and social media standpoint how in the case of one of the parents who was advocating for their dyslexic daughter, they were able to take that video of that parent speaking at a school board meeting and then slap a really enticing title, I don't remember what it was right now, onto that video and just push it out on social media. And they were getting thousands and thousands of views on it. And that is just fascinating to see that role of social media in blowing up this issue.

Ethan Chang: A good colleague and friend named Charlie Brodsky, he helped to organize a recent project with Zeus Leonardo, as we were discussing. And the project was talking about what Leonardo describes as a flexibility of whiteness.

Jill Anderson: Right. Right.

Ethan Chang: And in this case, where whiteness is a broad social category or force that in this case, many actors who aren't necessarily invested in this project of opposing ethnic studies can see their own interests and gains advanced by buying into that, by being a part of it. And the example that you're lifting up is really illustrative because what sense I made of it was that if dyslexia advocates joined this counter-movement against ethnic studies, it was framed as a zero sum game, that less investment in ethnic studies means more funds for dyslexic students. And really, dyslexia advocates were recruited to see their own interests served by a movement opposing ethnic studies.

And of course, there's a ton of background there as far as the intersections of disability and race and really how ethnic studies in its own critique of ableism is really advanced, or the needs of students with dyslexia can be advanced by ethnic studies. But those are little pockets or little moments that reveal to me the important work of identifying those opportunities for coalition building and taking seriously these oppositional movements who are, as you just mentioned, very crafty and not essentializing them, but trying to deeply understand so that it can inform our own education organizing work.

Jill Anderson: This might be a little bit of a naive question to ask, but do you think these parent activists were really aware of what they were doing, did they realize they were so crafty? Because you wrote about how you're an Asian American male and one of these activists just lumped you together with white men as a group.

Ethan Chang: I studied a particular oppositional movement to ethnic studies, and when I got there at school board meetings, at community events, it just happened to be predominantly white parents. And the goal wasn't to try to identify what was in their minds necessarily, but to through ethnography, carefully document the patterned actions and interactions and strategies that were at play, that led to some material consequences for the access to ethnic studies in the school district.

I really was careful, and I really tried to seek contradictions in my own analysis, to seek anomalous examples, because I didn't want to guess what parents were thinking. I really wanted to empirically convey what seemed to be moving the politics in this local district. What were they doing? They were showing up repeatedly at school board meetings.

And I think another part of this is they definitely had an informed strategy, an informed analysis from their own perspective. And I think as an ethnography, you always have a ton of work that gets left off the project and one part that I don't think I adequately had space for was the enjoyment factor of all this. So, often school board meetings were on a weekday, ended at like 10:00 PM, and a large group of the organizers would go out and have wine and have food after. And you would see, just by trying to take in the school board space, you would see the young kids of color and the educators and activists having to leave the space, you imagine, to grade papers or prepare for the next day, or just feed and care for themselves and their families.

There was so much of this organizing that was about also intention, but enjoyment too. That was just something that really fascinated me, that I think also reminded me how our own movements for ethnic studies really need to be shaped by joy and pleasure and passion, that it can't be an additional task, because the opponents are really finding a lot of joy in this organizing as well.

Jill Anderson: So, the counter-movement efforts didn't quite change the outcome of ethnic studies in the school, correct?

Ethan Chang: It didn't shape the policy, but I think there's ways that we can talk about how it likely shaped the politics.

Jill Anderson: Now you just kind of asked the next question. What happened in this district? Did you follow up after? And what was the reaction to that?

Ethan Chang: I can speak to a few of the material outcomes and then maybe a slightly more speculative answer as to how I think it shaped the overall feel and cultural politics of this particular district. Concretely, I think this organizing movement really shaped the career path of a particular superintendent who was advocating for ethnic studies. I did not have a chance to speak to that superintendent. I can only document the patterns that unfolded, but I think they had a very significant role in mobilizing a populous movement against the superintendent who was supportive of ethnic studies, and he was lambasted as a crazy social justice advocate. So, that was something for me.

This coalition also was able to raise material resources for a dyslexia project, which I found significant, and I found really quite incredible given how short-term that organizing was. And that brings me to maybe a slightly more speculative inference, that even though ethnic studies is formal policy, how these counter-movements shape the overall atmosphere within which educators do their jobs, what they can say and speak, how they can make connections between the curricula and say, social movements like Black Lives Matter. How they can engage students, really just do their work as engaged educators and political beings, I think is all shaped by this movement. And maybe that's a direction for further research, which is, given this specter of opposition, how does that shape the decision-making among educators? Who even wants to go into the field of education and become an educator when maybe your heart is, "I really want to teach about Native American histories or the long freedom struggle or other aspects that challenge the American narrative"?

And maybe you took all this in as a college student and you're like, "Nah, I'm going to pass on becoming an educator. That just seems like if I really do my heart's work, I'm just going to be targeted." So there's, I think, a lot of directions for further research to examine the ripple effect or the repercussions of these counter-movements that may not have a direct causation or line of correlation between the movement and this more amorphous field of just the feel or the specter of what it's like to teach and learn in a particular district that has gone through this particular oppositional movement.

Jill Anderson: That is such a valid point. And it's so interesting to hear in one capacity, they technically maybe didn't win, right?

Ethan Chang: Mm-hmm.

Jill Anderson: They didn't knock the thing entirely down, it still exists, but as you mentioned, those ripple effects can be potentially detrimental to schools and just to education as a whole. But also on the flip side, it sounds like they were able to do something positive at the same time in raising some awareness to the disability and dyslexia issue at the school. So, it's really complicated.

Ethan Chang: Yeah. Again, that gets back to that, I would say, one of the fundamental purposes of the project, which was not to essentialize an oppositional movement, right? We can often write off oppositional movements as backward, as unintelligent, as uninformed, but to really understand that this was a broad umbrella with a lot of distinctive interest groups, maybe some with progressive ends even, but that saw their own needs being advanced by this oppositional movement. And I think that itself is a lesson in organizing.

Again, how can we think about our work as making intentional partnerships, in this case with disability advocates? And how do we see the intersections of, say, an anti-racist movement with organizers who are opposing ableism built into the structures of schooling? So, there's just a lot of lessons there that speaks to one of the goals of the project that I started with.

Jill Anderson: Since this type of counter-movements don't seem to be going away, it just seems to be growing, I'm wondering what you think or suggest for educators, for school districts, as these start to pop up around the country, what is the approach or response to take?

Ethan Chang: I feel like I'm echoing a lot of the great work, all the way going back to organizers and intellectuals from Baldwin to Baker and others, who have really reminded us that any movement to redistribute resources or to re-narrate the nation, can expect the most fierce and brutal resistance and the most brutal opposition. And the project aims to build on that important work. And again, the reception of the piece has been interesting, ranging from folks who were surprised to folks who were not surprised at all, right? They just fundamentally expected this and they said, "Thanks for painting the portrait of it. And how do we move ahead now with that expectation that any curricula that in this case, divests from fundamental white narratives of nation and society, how do we just move with that expectation?"

And I teach leadership courses, so I would get the opportunity to work with vice principals and folks becoming school leaders. And so, part of this is to think about, not if this is going to happen, but when and then what do we do as school leaders and community leaders? What kinds of relationships need to be put in place? What kinds of assurances and ties and strategic foresight and planning need to be had, so that when the educator who teaches The Bluest Eye is called out as a social justice teacher or a social justice warrior?

We already have a system in place that is collective and that is broad based, and that is not just within the school, but woven deeply with families and communities, that that perspective is responded to immediately and decisively and with a lot of compassion perhaps, too. But there is a strategy in place. I say that with some hesitation because we can't anticipate every move, of course, but I think part of it is just moving with that expectation of fierce, fierce opposition.

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you so much, Ethan. This has just been such an enlightening conversation.

Ethan Chang: Thanks, Jill.

Jill Anderson: Ethan Chang is an assistant professor at the University Hawaii at Manoa. He recently published Curricular Counter-Movements: How White Parents Mounted a Popular Challenge to Ethnic Studies, released by the Harvard Educational Review. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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