This summer California passed Assembly Bill 1460, a new Ethnic Studies course requirement for all graduates of the California State University (CSU) system. A similar bill that would make Ethnic Studies a requirement in all California High Schools, AB 331, passed both the Assembly and the Senate but was just vetoed by the Governor, who suggested that the content of the sample curriculum needed more work in order to be sufficiently “balanced and inclusive.” Both bills have been controversial, receiving passionate support and opposition from various camps.
What can we learn from this situation? What does the alignment of forces tell us about the changes in the past 50 years in the world, in US society, and in the field of Ethnic Studies?
The contemporary character of Ethnic Studies — the content of its curricula and the world outlook that it imparts — is such that the progressive section of the bourgeoisie willingly adopts it as an educational mandate for all students. Democrat governor Gavin Newsom was eager to implement AB 1460, over the pleas of CSU’s Chancellor, Board of Trustees, and Academic Senate for “university autonomy” and against the legislative determination of curricula.
The CSU faculty union president said: “Governor Newsom, by signing AB 1460, has demonstrated his understanding of the power of a true Ethnic Studies graduation requirement to change people’s lives and to change the racial trajectory this state and country are on. … I applaud his leadership.”
In opposition, from the right-wing of the bourgeoisie, we see racist and chauvinistic attacks on any instruction of US history that acknowledges its white supremacist and genocidal origins. Trump recently launched a rabid campaign against critical race theory, calling it child abuse and the greatest threat to western civilization. He condemned the 1619 Project as “toxic propaganda.”
This situation also reveals something, in hindsight, about the first battle for Ethnic Studies, which took place at San Francisco State University in 1968. The Third World Liberation Front, a coalition of several ethnic student organizations, united with the Black Student Union to demand a school of Ethnic Studies, with control over the hiring and firing of its instructors, among several other demands. The “Front” of the “Third World” was a metaphor for a joint struggle of oppressed national minorities in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Liberation” was a metaphor for equality in admissions, content, hiring, and institutional control in the sphere of education.
How far have we come? By all indicators, such as racist police terror across the country and deeply segregated schools in California and other liberal states, the goal of “Liberation” in the materialist sense of complete equality between nationalities remains unfulfilled by the bourgeoisie and its class democracy in 2020. The student victories of the 1960s, both in the Bay Area and at New York’s CUNY, have long since been transformed into mere symbols of progress.
AB 1460 represents a summit in the long institutionalization of Ethnic Studies, a process which began immediately at its inception. This process is reflected in the academic career of Nathan Hare, an important nationalist who coined the term “ethnic studies” after his hiring as the first chair of Black Studies at SF State. He was fired by the college president, Reaganite puppet S. I. Hayakawa, for his participation in the 5-month long student strike. 1969 saw the first school of Ethnic Studies successfully established at SFSU, but Hare was never rehired to the department he founded despite student demands for his return.
We must defend the progressive democratic content of the fight for Ethnic Studies, but we cannot be neutral regarding the content of its course curriculum. The university performs an important ideological function under capitalism, distributing knowledge according to what is needed for the reproduction of the bourgeois social order. The content of education at all levels serves to transmit an idealist and metaphysical worldview that reflects this class interest. The implementation of an Ethnic Studies course requirement cannot negate this character of education in the imperialist stage.
Particularly in the social sciences and philosophy, the content of curricula is fundamental: students must fight for curricula which impart a progressive and scientific worldview. In contrast, the 2019 draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum prepared by appointees of the State Board of Education proposes course content that will “challenge imperialist/colonial beliefs and practices on multiple levels,” and “conceptualize, imagine, and build new possibilities for post-imperial life that promotes collective narratives of transformative resistance, critical hope, and radical healing.” We see here, opposed to the materialist conception of concrete revolutionary struggle based on a scientific analysis of society, an idealist insistence that we can transform the world by transforming our thoughts. Dominant trends in Ethnic Studies and the humanities in general today consider themselves ideological combatants against the very ideas of progress and science.
Mandated education in these perspectives will promote disunity and ideological weakness among students, which is why they are eagerly adopted by the bourgeoisie. In this regard, the development by students of a materialist world outlook and a scientific understanding of society must take place against idealist and metaphysical ideas propagated by their professors in Ethnic Studies, as well as against all other class falsifications circulated in other fields in the university.
 See Stephen C. Ferguson II’s Philosophy of African American Studies: Nothing Left of Blackness (2015) for a valuable account of this five-decade history.