As summer rolled into fall I had thought the worst of the culture wars on Critical Race Theory (CRT) was over, or that at least it would never make it over the eastern border of California. But I was wrong. In mid-November Asian American leaders demanded that the vice mayor of Cupertino Liang Chao issue a formal apology for saying in an e-mail that the Chinese Exclusion Act was not about race since it only excluded Chinese laborers. She asserted that it was to protect American jobs, similar to the H1B visa process. Chao made this statement to illustrate her opposition to CRT. According to Chao, incorporating CRT in K-12 education would incorrectly reduce the origins of Chinese Exclusion Act to racism.
Ironically, historians have long agreed that the Chinese Exclusion Act was in fact motivated by racism. In fact the very authors of the Chinese Exclusion Act would also have readily admitted that it was to prevent specifically the reviled Chinese from entering the United States, since in the 1880s being racist was de rigueur. For California in particular, being anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese was almost a requirement for a successful career in politics throughout the early 20th century. Indeed the Issei lived through an incredibly difficult time, even in San Francisco.
According to Reuters, opposition against the teaching of CRT in schools first began after May 2020, when white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis. Four months later, in the midst of mass national outcry against white supremacy, journalist Christopher Rufo went on Fox News to denounce anti-bias training happening in federal agencies as an example of “critical race theory,” a radical ideology that he claimed sowed racial division through education. Then-President Donald Trump directed federal agencies to cease these trainings which he called “divisive, un-American propaganda.” And in the year after Trump’s executive order, conservative politicians then used CRT as a galvanizing alarm, inciting parents to flood school board meetings to oppose discussions of race that would indoctrinate impressionable children. Critical Race Theory has now been banned in eight states, which notably never had CRT curriculum in the first place.
This past summer as the nation became embroiled in what Time Magazine called the “history wars,” I finally realized that CRT was being used as stand in for ethnic studies curriculum. It seems all courses discussing race were being labeled as CRT. Critical Race Theory, however, is in fact a very specific disciplinary field that originates in legal studies. While many ethnic studies scholars rely heavily on CRT scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality — that it’s important to think at the intersection of gender, race and class as consequentially different — few of those same academics would actually assign readings from critical race theory in an ethnic studies classroom. Why not? First because critical race theory engages often in legal constructs that are not familiar and therefore less accessible to an undergraduate. Second because CRT focuses largely on how structural apparatuses destroy communities of color. While Ethnic Studies does indeed discuss structural racism, it more adamantly focuses on how BIPOC folks (Black, indigenous and people of color) organized and transformed a society that deliberately sought to undermine them.
Indeed an ethnic studies filled entirely with CRT would be illuminating, but also utterly demoralizing. And, a class that does not empower students would work against the fundamental purpose of ethnic studies as transformative education that inspires people to become change agents.
As arguments against CRT have grown in intensity and efficacy leading to the state bans, there have also been notable advances for ethnic studies in K-12 education. In May 2021 Gov.Gavin Newsom signed AB 101, making California the first state to require ethnic studies courses for high schools. Two months later in July 2021, Illinois became the first state to require Asian American history after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the TEAACH Act (Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act).
As conservative whites and apparently some people of color oppose CRT, the overwhelming evidence in countless publications on education illustrate how ethnic studies courses boost student engagement. A study at Stanford University concluded that students enrolled in an ethnic studies course had improved attendance by 21% and an increase in GPA by 1.4 grade points. At San Francisco State University our Office of Institutional Research found a correlation between taking ethnic studies courses and a rise in a student’s graduation rate by 70%. Notably, ethnic studies courses appear to have the biggest positive impact on white students who have less often thought about race than BIPOC students, according to Christine Sleeter of the National Education Organization.
Amy Sueyoshi is dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University with a joint faculty appointment in Sexuality Studies and Race and Resistance Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA and has authored two books titled “Queer Compulsions” and “Discriminating Sex.” She is also the founding co-curator of the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. She can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.