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California Lawmakers Consider Ethnic Studies Mandate For Nation’s Largest University System
Cal State LA
Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

California lawmakers are considering a bill that would mandate students enrolled in the nation’s largest four-year public university system take a qualifying Ethnic Studies course in order to graduate.

The requirement would apply to the schools that comprise California State University (CSU), which collectively educate approximately 481,000 students. According to CBS News’ Sacramento affiliate, “all 23 campuses in the system are pushing back on the proposed legislation.” Still, the measure passed the state Assembly in May and is currently being considered by the Senate.

“The White male administrators who run the CSU are trying to kill the bill,” said Dr. Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African Studies at CSU’s Los Angeles campus. “There should really be no opposition to this bill…unless you’re a blatant racist.”

Abdullah, who is also the lead organizer of L.A.’s Black Lives Matter chapter, was instrumental in convincing the city’s public school district to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement in 2014. A separate bill targeting public high schools across the state was put on hold last week. Critics had claimed the suggested curriculum was anti-Semitic and representatives of several ethnic groups complained about being excluded.

Assembly Bill 1460 (AB 1460), which would apply to the CSU institutions, highlights four areas: Native American Studies; African American Studies; Asian American Studies; and Latina and Latino American Studies.

“Ethnic Studies is not the same as ‘multicultural studies,’ ‘diversity studies,’ or even ‘American Studies,’” Dr. Abdullah explained in a recent editorial, speaking on behalf of Black Lives Matter’s sanctioned California chapters. “The thrust of Ethnic Studies focuses on the particular (and intersectional) experiences of the four historically oppressed racialized groups.”

The Los Angeles Sentinel reports: “CSU is the most ethnically and racially diverse university system in the nation with minorities making up about 74 percent of the student population.”

Some lawmakers have expressed concerns about future proposals asking the Legislature to dictate even more CSU graduation requirements, such as gender studies or curricula that focus on LGBTQ+ themes. They argue that college administrators should take the lead in determining educational programs rather than politicians.

However, the bill’s author said she introduced AB 1460 because several CSU campuses had not complied with a 2017 executive order from Chancellor Timothy P. White making Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement.

“I’ve been in the Ivory Tower and tried to paint it multiple colors, and it has not worked,” said Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), who has been planning the proposed directive since she was elected to the Assembly seven years ago.

Dr. Weber, who once taught in the CSU system, also spent 40 years as a professor of Africana Studies at San Diego State University. At a hearing earlier this summer, she testified that “Ethnic Studies has a demonstrated benefit for all students – students of color and white students.”

“Ethnic Studies enable students to succeed academically, professionally, and socially, resulting in them making valuable contributions to the community, the country, and our democracy.”

The Los Angeles Times notes that some opponents of the mandate perceive Ethnic Studies as “an academic field dominated by one-sided, insular political correctness and separatism.” But community organizers like Dr. Abdullah have long credited the discipline’s teachings for giving her life direction and purpose.

“Black Studies transformed me from one who dropped out of traditional high school and was losing her way to one who earned her PhD and became a professor and activist/organizer,” Abdullah revealed to her followers on social media. “There are countless others like me whose lives have been saved by ethnic studies.”

If AB 1460 becomes law, it would require CSU students to take one 3-credit unit of any accepted Ethnic Studies class. According to CBS 13, “the courses would need to be approved by a curriculum committee on a campus by campus basis.” The new mandate would be implemented starting with the 2020-2021 school year.

Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @JeffreyCawood.

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