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The time for ethnic studies is now

Ethnic studies is a critical tool in developing responsive solutions to Minnesota’s struggle for racial equity.

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

We live in a racially illiterate country. We are taught to see white supremacy only in the actions of overt bigots, right-wing militias, and politicians who support them. White supremacy is not an individual act. It is a system of relations that permeates all institutions, including schools. Curricula is a primary mechanism of white supremacy in schools because it shapes how we think, understand, and act in the world. If our goal is building a just society, any attempt at a true reckoning of our nation’s racist foundation must include re-examining what we choose to teach our children in school.

Historian Carter G. Woodson wrote, “If you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions.” What we are taught in school maintains the status quo of racial hierarchy in our thoughts and actions. Centering ethnic studies across all curricula in Minnesota would be a crucial first step toward achieving the comprehensive change so many white Minnesotans and institutions have been awakened to since the killing of George Floyd.

We have an opportunity now. The Minnesota Department of Education has convened, as it does every decade, a group of educators, researchers, and stakeholders to revise the Social Studies Standards that drive state curricula, guiding educators in terms of what should be taught and assessed.

Ethnic studies is “a rigorous, interdisciplinary and comparative study of the central role that ethnicity, race, and racism play in the construction of United States history, culture, and society.” It provides us all with the knowledge and skills for racial literacy, emphasizing historical contexts of Minnesota’s social and political issues. Ethnic studies is a critical tool in developing responsive solutions to Minnesota’s struggle for racial equity.

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COVID-19 has necessitated unparalleled changes in modes of delivery and evaluation, such as a seemingly easy shift away from the previously taken for granted MCAs and ACTs. We need this same urgency about curriculum justice.

Brian Lozenski
Brian Lozenski

With some of the U.S.’s largest racialized disparities, Minnesota’s Eurocentric, white-washed curriculum adds to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) youth feeling disenfranchised and disaffected. Nearly every school district in the state articulates some goal of racial equity, but implementation and outcomes never match the rhetoric. While current Social Studies Standards are not the only cause of racial disparity in Minnesota, they indicate a lack of will to create a curriculum that genuinely reflects the people and history of Minnesota.

Some argue that the existing standards are mostly skill-based and that specific content and methods are left to individual teachers. While this is largely true, the standards currently do not reflect the skills and content to engage in an ethnic studies approach to teaching and learning nor provide the necessary time and resources. For instance, ethnic studies skills intentionally equip students to trace oral histories, locate erased perspectives and archives, and develop counternarratives.

Jonathan Hamilton
Jonathan Hamilton

Calls for ethnic studies curricula in Minnesota schools date back decades. In a 1971 lawsuit, plaintiffs demanded that the Minneapolis School District “draw up a plan that will ‘overcome the effects of past discrimination’” and fully implement its own Human Relations Guidelines adopted by the Minnesota Board of Education in 1970. Those guidelines stated, “A comprehensive K-12 social studies program shall be required of all students, focusing on awareness to the American experience including all ethnic groups.” Yet here we are, nearly 50 years later, seeking the same fundamental change.

Adapting Social Studies State Standards is not intended as a one-pronged approach to racial equity. Ethnic studies are, by definition, interdisciplinary. The committee could take a large step by centering ethnic studies and its methodological skill sets in the 2021-2031 standards. This bold move will lead to other necessary structural changes, including re-assessing teacher education, hiring, and licensure, and diversifying teacher demographics to align with our increasingly diverse students.

As Thurgood Marshall sarcastically said in 1956, “You can or maybe you can’t override prejudice overnight, but the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863. … I believe in gradualism, and I also believe that ninety-odd years is pretty gradual.” If there was ever a moment for this state to show it cares about all youth, that moment is now. 

Brian Lozenski is an associate professor of urban and multicultural education at Macalester College. Jonathan Hamilton is a visiting professor of educational studies at Macalester College and member of the 2020-21 Minnesota Social Studies Standards Committee. Both are members of Education for Liberation Minnesota.

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