A bill requiring college students to complete an ethnic studies course to graduate from the California State University system has been approved by the state Senate.
Following the 30-5 vote Thursday, the bill heads to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has not indicated whether he would sign the bill.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, introduced AB 1460 in February of last year.
The debate over the bill gained more urgency after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which led to the nationwide protests against racial inequality and policy brutality. By informing and educating students to think critically, the bill could be a way to reduce racism, according to Sen. Ling Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar, one of the supporters of the bill.
Another bill prioritized by the Black caucus is AB 2917, which requires the state Department of Justice review the deadly force policies of law enforcement agencies.
Critics worry about students not being able to graduate on time, and that the Legislature should not intervene with academia, especially when the CSU system was already facing lean budgets due to COVID-19. University officials estimate that the proposal would cost $16.5 million per year, according to EdSource.
The bill would require students starting with the incoming class of 2025 to complete at least one 3-unit course in ethnic studies as an undergraduate requirement. Currently, all but one of its 23 campuses offer ethnic studies classes.
That would mean roughly a fifth of the nearly 500,000 students enrolled in the state university system for the upcoming year would need to complete the course, a number that would be higher with transfer students from the community college system.
The core classes will focus on four historically marginalized groups: Native Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans and Asian Americans. Taken together, the ethnic groups account for roughly 61% of CSU’s student body in 2018.
Steve Perez, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Sacramento State, said the university will continue to follow all applicable state laws, regulations and Chancellor’s Office executive orders. “As always, we will work to give our students the best educational opportunity possible,” he said.
A separate bill, meanwhile, that would require ethnic studies in high school remains on hold for more discussions in a Senate committee.
History of ethnic studiesEthnic studies emerged as an interdisciplinary field in California following lengthy and sometimes violent student strikes more than 50 years ago, which helped lead to the formation of ethnic studies departments at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley in 1968.
“It took a while for people to recognize this is an academic discipline. It is a journey of 50 years,” Weber said. The inclusion of different groups in curricula leads to better understanding of California’s diversity, she said.
Sacramento State also offers ethnic studies classes to the student body to fulfill the general education requirement.
Stevie Ruiz, assistant professor in the Department of Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge, said ethnic studies is not just about multiculturalism. It also helps students see how race shapes society, deconstructs unconscious and explicit racial biases rooted in stereotypes and examine how the most disenfranchised are treated. It is intertwined with the fabric of everyday life: Ruiz pointed to disproportional deaths among African Americans and other ethnic groups from COVID-19 that are rooted in racism and inequality.
“Ethnic studies says race affects all of us,” Ruiz said. “You are either benefiting from racism or suffering from it.”
A 2011 research on the academic and social value of Ethnic Studies by the National Education Association shows that both students of color and white students have been found to benefit academically and socially from ethnic studies.
Bao Lo, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at Sacramento State, said the passage of AB 1460 is a big step toward advancing ethnic studies as a discipline.
“This is a huge milestone for ethnic studies, but this is just beginning and we don’t end with it,” Lo said.
Nia Gregory, a graduate student at Sacramento State, said ethnic studies is about more than educating people about unfamiliar communities.
“It changed my life,” she said. “To see yourself represented in the curriculum … it grounds you, it reminds you you’re here for a reason.”
Gregory entered college intent on becoming a science teacher, but said she struggled to feel accepted in the classroom environment. After the first day of a class on American Indian women at Sacramento State, Gregory recalled leaving in tears.
It was the first time she had seen a Native American professor, and the first time that she was really able to see herself doing the same thing, she said.
Gregory said ethnic studies explore the root causes of social issues like discrimination and offers solutions.
“Is taking a three-unit course going to be more of a hardship than leading a society with ignorant people?” Gregory said. “Something is missing in the curriculum.”
(The Bee’s Ashley Wong contributed to this story.)
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