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Oct 20, 2023

Ethnic Studies and American democracy

As I sit through presentations on ethnic studies at this year's CCTE conference, I find myself energized by the passion and creativity of the presenters, both university and K-12 faculty. I also find myself reflecting on the conservative critiques of the subject. The two primary accusations are that ethnic studies shine a light on the darker aspects of US history, thereby undermining the foundational myth, and that it divides Americans rather than unites them.

Both concerns are entirely unfounded. The ethnic studies movement, in its essence, is a project of unity and not division. It invites marginalized groups to augment history in a way that acknowledges their struggles and experiences. Far from weakening the American foundational myth, this approach strengthens it. The individuals I observe at this conference are not advocates for division but champions of equal respect and representation.

In contrast, the conservative alternative poses genuine risks. A rigid, exclusionary interpretation of history is a threat to America's identity and its democratic institutions. Notably, the Trumpist movement stands out as the sole faction in recent times that sought to seize control of the government and bypass the democratic process. And all these people claim to be patriots, just as they think nothing of eroding the country’s most fundamental institutions.

California's approach deserves the world's attention. The state is pioneering a sophisticated, well thought out method of preserving both American democracy and its civic unity. It achieves this by actively integrating previously marginalized groups into the larger narrative. Ironically, this mirrors the very concerns of conservatives: ensuring civil peace, democracy and stability that pave the way for economic prosperity. However, the liberal vision is forward-looking. A country that chooses to overlook its diversity is setting itself up for downfall. California and other blue states provide an alternative route, transitioning from a traditional exclusionary democracy to an inclusive multiethnic democracy. This new model promises enhanced stability because of its adaptability. 

Conservatives and proponents of ethnic studies ultimately share a common goal: preserving and protecting what is important. However, their methods diverge. While conservatives opt for a simplistic approach, the ethnic studies and its predecessor, the multicultural education, recognize that to truly safeguard something valuable, one must change it, and change oneself. 

Illustration by DALL-E3 and Chat GPT

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