The Orange County Board of Education on July 27 hosted a forum exploring critical race theory, ethnic studies and concerns from the community about the topics. The forum featured five panelists who generally spoke against implementing specific ethnic studies courses in schools and denounced critical race theory. Hosted one week after the Orange County Department of Education’s forum on ethnic studies — which brought together superintendents and staff from various OC districts with experts in the field — the county board’s panel featured no district representation. In a pre-forum press conference, Board President Mari Barke said, “We want to be educated about the proper and legal implementation of California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum with the growing national debate on critical race theory.”
A 40-minute public comment period preceded the panelists’ opening remarks. Each commenter condemned the topics at hand or the state’s adoption of the new Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum as detrimental to students. “I am a Japanese father. I believe ethnic studies and critical race theory promotes racism and hate,” said one commenter. “It focuses on our country’s defeats rather than our victories. … Today, any one of any race can be successful in America with hard work and determination. I’m living proof of that.”
In opening remarks, panelists reviewed the history of critical race theory as a legal framework that emphasizes people as members of groups, not individuals, and as oppressors versus the oppressed; possible legal liabilities of teaching a controversial ethnic studies curriculum, citing the U.S. Constitution as held by the U.S. Supreme Court in West Virginia v. Barnett that forbids “schools to coerce children to express agreement or adherence to any sentiment in violation of their conscience”; and the importance of being your child’s advocate by knowing exactly what is being taught.
One of the main threads throughout the forum that most concerned both the public and panelists was the perception that both critical race theory and ethnic studies present a narrow lens that assigns almost all of society’s problems to race without considering a multitude of factors, and defines people, first, by their race. “Identity is multifaceted and critical race theory does not allow space for that,” said Dr. Brandy Shufutinsky, a social worker and member of the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies.
Also concerning to the panelists is what UCLA law professor Richard Sander, who specializes in addressing issues of racial inequality in housing segregation, calls the “ideological bubble” in both ethnic studies and critical race theory. He said the disciplines have “a tendency toward ideological conformity and suppression of viewpoints.”
While most panelists presented explicit cases against teaching critical race theory and ethnic studies, Shufutinsky explained the differences between a critical approach to ethnic studies and a constructive one.
“Constructive ethnic studies centers students, diversifies materials and delves into complicated intercommunity relationships,” Shufutinsky said. She compared a critical approach to “rote memorization” versus the “analytical thinking” required for a constructive approach in which students are given the tools to think for themselves “without being indoctrinated into a particular ideology.”
“Constructive ethnic studies does not put students in the middle of a left-wing versus right-wing tug-of-war. Instead, it openly embraces historical realities — the good, the bad and the ugly — while providing opportunity for conversation, debate and learning,” Shufutinsky said. “Racism and discrimination are addressed in the constructive approach to ethnic studies, however, students are not held responsible for the sins of the foremothers and forefathers. Constructive ethnic studies does not limit students’ identities to victim or oppressor, but makes space for students to be empowered in their individual and communal agency and explore the intersections of identity.”
Group forms to advocate for ethnic studies
The forum was not without controversy, as just days before it was to occur, a panelist, Dr. Theresa Montaño withdrew from the forum. In a letter read by board member Beckie Gomez, who had invited Montaño to the event, the Cal State Northridge professor of Chicana/o Studies, wrote she was compelled to cancel when her “research revealed that all the panelists are vehemently opposed to ethnic studies and have made their positions on the topic clear. I am always open to speaking with those who hold multiple perspectives on the topic and I am not averse to speaking with those experts whose ideas and definition of ethnic studies are different than mine. The key is, if I am speaking with those who are knowledgeable and genuinely interested in reaching consensus on how best to implement a solid ethnic studies program. Because this panel is not composed of experts nor are their points of view diverse, this panel will not effectively inform the community or build meaningful dialogue about ethnic studies.”
While board member Gomez asked that the spot not be replaced, the board voted to replace Montaño with Dr. Wenyuan Wu, executive director of Californians for Equal Rights. Dr. Montaño instead joined a new Orange County group called Truth in Education, whose members held a press conference on July 27 presenting the merits of ethnic studies.