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Ethnic Studies Bill Heads to Governors Desk, Inland Empire Legislators Respond

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State of California
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Official portraits for Assemblyman Jose Medina and State Senator Melissa Melendez

On September 8th, California Assembly Bill 101 passed in the state assembly and senate and will now head to Governor Newsom's desk.

The bill would make ethnic studies a California high school graduation requirement for all high schoolers graduating in the 2029-2030 school year and after. It would require all school districts, including charter schools to have students take at least a semester or a full-year course if wanted.

I spoke with Democrat Assemblyman Jose Medina of Riverside, who wrote AB-101, and Republican State Sen. Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore.

Sen. Melendez has been a vocal opponent of the bill. She told me that, as a general rule she is not opposed to teaching students about this country's history, but that she has a problem with teaching them in a way that makes them feel as though they are "racist by the nature of the color of their skin." She added, "And that is what we are seeing with critical race theory."

According to Education Week, critical race theory (CRT), “Is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”

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California State Sen. Melissa Melendez speaking with parents who homeschool their children on Feb. 1, 2021.

Sen. Melendez added, "If you look at the books that have been published and the comments made by some of the spokespeople for the movement. It's pretty clear that if you are someone other than a black person in this country, then you are deemed to be a racist, and I do not think that's appropriate."

Many democrats have refuted claims that critical race theory (CRT) is a part of AB-101. While there is no mention of CRT in the bill, Sen. Melendez told me that the model curriculum for ethnic studies "very clearly" does mention CRT. She cited an excerpt from Chapter 3 of the California Department of Education's model curriculum.

That except is under the "Useful Theory, Pedagogy, and Research" section and says, "Teachers and administrators should begin with a careful, deliberate analysis of their own personal identities, backgrounds, knowledge base, and biases. They should familiarize themselves with current scholarly research around ethnic studies instruction, such as critically and culturally/community relevant and responsive pedagogies, critical race theory, and intersectionality, which are key theoretical frameworks and pedagogies that can be used in ethnic studies research and instruction."

Sen. Melendez added, "So it very clearly does mention critical race theory in the model curriculum, as well as offer a definition of critical race theory. So, while it is not specifically outlined in AB-101, it is included in the bill because included in the model curriculum is reference to critical race theory."

Assemblyman Medina is a former high school teacher of over 20 years and told me he taught ethnic studies and Chicano studies during his tenure at Riverside Poly High School. Medina had also introduced a similar bill, AB-331, during the 2019-2020 legislative year, but Gov. Newsom vetoed it on Sept. 30, 2020.

In my interview with Assemblyman Medina, I mentioned that Sen. Melendez said that it included CRT. He responded saying, "I taught ethnic studies and Chicano studies at Poly High School. And I would say that the curriculum that has been adopted by the State of California, Department of Education has nothing of critical race theory,"

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Assemblyman Jose Medina speaking on the floor of the California State Assembly.

He added that the issue of CRT being taught in high schools is a "red hiring, it's ludicrous to say that." He said the theory is primarily taught in law school and that it's not going to be anything that reaches high schools or below. He said, "It's something that unfortunately the right-wing of the Republican Party has created, as they've done many times in the past... to excite their base and to cause all sorts of mayhem." I then responded to his comment by mentioning the section that Sen. Melendez had cited in my conversation with her. I also told him that CRT is also mentioned in Chapter 6 that displays UC-Approved Course Outlines.

He responded, saying, "I'm not surprised that in 900 pages of the model curriculum, a reference would be made to it. But to equate Ethnic Studies and critical race theory, which is what I think the right-wing has done, I think is a flat-out lie... There's critical race theory as it exists, as is explained by scholars, as it exists in law school, and then there's ethnic studies which is what we are proposing to teach in High School. Two very different things."

I was made aware after my interview with Assemblyman Medina that CRT is only mentioned in the course outline "Academic Language Development 2" from San Juan High School in Citrus Heights, California. Within Chapter 6, there are 28-course outlines listed and it’s mentioned nowhere else.

In the 882 pages of documents of the curriculum, there is a direct reference of CRT three times and is spelled out in two reference points.

Referencing to the classes he used to teach, Medina also added, "And what I taught and what the curriculum has is based on what is called the four pillars of historical, ethnic studies. And that is to teach about the experience, culture, and history of four groups that have been marginalized in the past in the history of the United States."

He said those four groups are Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans. He added that it's based, "On examining history, culture, literature of those four groups which have been left out of curriculum over many years."

Governor Newsom will now have until Oct. 10 to sign or veto the bill. There has been no indication of what he will do this time around.

You can CLICK HERE to view the preface and all six chapters of the model curriculum laid out by the California Department of Education. CRT is mentioned in the below chapters.

Contained within the text:

  • Chapter 3, lines 406-407.
  • Chapter 6, lines 1020 and 1282.

Contained in a reference point:

  • Chapter 1, page 13, reference point 19.
  • Chapter 3, page 18, reference point 13.