Frank Costanzo in ethnic studies, Education Policy, Teachers Chief of School Operations • Norwalk School District Nov 22, 2019 · 1 min read · 1.8K

What is Ethnic Studies in Schools?

What is Ethnic Studies in Schools?

Ethnic studies focuses on the perspectives and experiences of people of color. It also looks at how race is connected to other dimensions of variability, such as gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, and immigrant status. Ethnic studies shed light on how power can be used to oppress marginalized communities and people of color. In this context, power refers to how a nation, society, or individuals exert influence over vulnerable or marginalized people through racism and other systemic forces.

Ethnic studies emerged as an interdisciplinary academic field in the United States in the late 1960s. About fifty years ago, the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) was a social movement that organized strikes at the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco State. Spurred by the Civil Rights Movement, their objective was the radicalization and self-awareness of people of color and indigenous groups. These strikes and other such movements led to ethnic studies departments being established across the country, with the earliest ones emerging in California.

People who research and teach ethnic studies work to understand the experiences of racialized and indigenous groups. This field spans many academic disciplines including sociology, communication studies, history, literature, anthropology, and political science. There are a variety of ethnic studies departments on college and university campuses across the United States. These include African American Studies, Raza Studies, Jewish Studies, Asian American Studies, Arab Studies, Chicano Studies, Native American Studies, and Mexican American Studies.

There is an increasing demand to offer ethnic studies courses in high schools as well. Indiana and Oregon have passed laws requiring ethnic studies courses in their K-12 curricula. The Seattle school district plans to revise its math requirements by incorporating more ethnic studies topics. For example, some math classes would teach students that math originates from ancient civilizations of color. Other math classes might identify members of marginalized communities who made significant contributions to mathematics.

Many advocates argue that an ethnic studies course should be a requirement for high school graduation. California might be the first state to pass such a law. However, efforts to mandate ethnic studies are not without controversy. Some opponents argue that teaching such topics amount to indoctrination and propaganda. Others express concern that these subjects might not be inclusive enough of Jewish culture and other groups. Only time will tell if these concerns have value. 

Originally published at on November 22, 2019.