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Bay Area schools put race on the syllabus


Beginning next fall, all San Francisco public schools will offer a class called Ethnic Studies. It’s a look at American history and culture from the perspective of people who aren't white. It’s also a chance to break down race in the classroom, and deal with tough concepts like unconscious racism and structural inequality.

It’s a timely move, and one San Francisco School board director Emily Murase thinks can help solve what she calls a “crisis in race relations.” Murase says she is “very proud to be part of a community to find the antidote to that crisis to be... an inclusive curriculum."

There’s data suggesting that ethnic studies classes can also help close the racial achievement gap; SFUSD officials have said that a pilot version of the class increased student GPAs and lowered truancy rates. The school board is convinced, and San Francisco wants to make ethnic studies a requirement within five years.

For a model of how that might work, we went across the bay to Berkeley High, which has offered ethnic studies for more than 20 years.

A racial incident

On October 4th, a campus safety officer found a noose hanging from a tree in the Berkeley High courtyard. Teachers and administrators wanted to deal with the incident head-on. So they put together a presentation for students about what nooses mean in this country. After showing it, teacher Dana Moran asks her freshman ethnic studies class for their reactions. It doesn’t take long for things to get touchy.

“Definitely, I did not get how horrible and how much fear that noose could cause,” says one student. “But just one thing I just thought was sort of messed up was at the end they claimed the African American holocaust was still going on today and I think that comparing what we have today to the holocaust is just offensive in itself.”

He’s cut off by another student, who says, ”If Eric Garner and them were white, would they have died?” This provokes sounds of dissent as well as sympathy. Moran asks the students to examine those reactions. Here she asks, “So, what’s the point of that question?”

This is a hard class to teach. A traditional 9th grade history class might mention lynchings when it covers Jim Crow. But it probably wouldn’t connect that history to ongoing, state-sponsored violence against black people. And that’s part of why ethnic studies has been controversial from the start.

“There was a lot of pushback about the curriculum,” says Moran, who's taught the class since it was introduced in 1994. “Almost every year that I taught it, some very powerful group of parents would organize for its abolition.”

In the beginning, the class was was mandatory. Moran says parents would tell her, “If you continue to teach that white people are racist, then white people aren't going to want to help anymore, we’re just going to be insulted and not want to participate.”

Moran says she had to tell them again and again that the class was about the history of injustice in this country. The point was to face that history, not to demonize students. “We’re pretty clear that it’s not all white people,” she says, “and it’s certainly not the white kids in the room who had nothing to do with it.”

“When you’re a fourteen-year-old boy you don’t feel particularly powerful, I don’t care what race you are,” says HasmigMinassian, who has also taught the class. She says the first step is helping students understand the past. The second is connecting it to the present. So, for example, she brings up the eugenics movement of the early 1900s, when mainstream scientists argued that there was a genetic hierarchy of races with whites at the top. She explains to students how this kind of thinking influenced state programs.

"That blows kids' minds," she says. "Because up to that point they’re just like ‘oh, slavery,’ and then, ‘the end of slavery,’ but there’s not a lot in between that helps them understand, how did people rationalize and justify racism?”

Once they've discussed that history, she says she talks about how we see similar thinking today. Take, for example, a recent study showing that white Americans tend to perceive black people as having superhuman qualities.

Seeking the best way forward

Both Minassian and Moran say the main purpose in studying the history of social change is to see how people made progress and give students the tools they need to keep that ball rolling forward.

Even after 20 years, though, other Berkeley High teachers aren’t so sure that ethnic studies classes are the best way to help students succeed. English teacher Matt Carton says it’s better to expose them to alternate perspectives by making diverse choices within a standard curriculum.

"We can develop empathy through literature," he says. "Sherman Alexie’s 'Flight', the graphic novel 'Persepolis' by MarjaneSatrapi. And I think you can do that without any sort of ideological bent.”

History teacher Alex Angell says he worries about what’s lost when schools make room for new curriculum. He says one of the things teachers ask students when they return is, how could we have better prepared you for college?

"We have a lot of students saying, 'Berkeley High was great,'" he says, "'but I never really learned how to write properly.'”

But teacher Matt Laurel says all the college prep in the world won’t counteract students’ day to day experience at Berkeley High.

“Look at the janitors here and look at the teachers here,” Laurel says. “The custodial workers, the facilities people: they’re all black. How many black teachers do we have here? If you’re a black student at this school, what are you supposed to think and feel when everybody’s trying to tell you everybody has the same opportunity if you work hard enough?”

Laurel’s taught at Berkeley High for five years. His family is Filipino, an identity he remembers distancing himself from. Growing up, he says, he resisted learning Tagalog “to the point where I was embarrassed by my mom’s accent.”

He says he didn’t fully shed that shame until taking an ethnic studies class in college. The class, he says, "showed me that there’s a lot about my culture to be proud about.”

He says it's not good enough to imply these messages. Teachers have to communicate them directly.

"A lot of students at Berkeley count themselves out before they even give themselves a chance,” he says. “There’s this misconception that to do school you have to be a certain way, when [actually] there’s different ways to learn and get curious.”

Ethnic Studies in real life

For some students, like Lawrence Alfred, who took the class in 2001, that message changes things. Alfred says he was a horrible student. But he never skipped Ethnic Studies. One of his strongest memories of the class is from the conversations in the days following the 9/11 attacks.

He remembers his teacher asking some Muslim students in the class to talk about how the attack affected them. He says it was an eye-opening experience. "There are some kids that I hang out with all the time being antagonized by other people for something that they had absolutely no connection to,” he remembers realizing.

He says ethnic studies “put the idea into [his] head that before [he] can say anything about this person about who they are, take a step back.”

And that ended up mattering, a lot. Alfred ended up joining the army and did a tour of Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. Memories from his ethnic studies class kept bubbling up. He says he didn’t think about what he was doing in terms of ‘us versus them’ the way some other people did. Instead he “really firmly believed in the cause of actually helping people.”

Ethnic Studies teacher HasmigMinassian says this one of her biggest goals: to help her students develop empathy before they go out and separate into groups. In her class, she does an exercise called Stand and Declare. Students are asked to silently stand up if they, for example, hear gunshots in their neighborhoods at night. “Stand if you consider yourself poor, stand if you were raised to believe being tough is more important than being caring,” and so on.

Minassian says watching what people stand up for can be surprising, and show students that they might have a deep, personal experience in common with somebody they’d never expected to share that with. She hopes that's what they’ll take with them when they leave Berkeley High.