The Trouble with Ethnic Studies

The state asked the Jewish community to be a part of the conversation. But not everyone thinks they should be there.

When Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) asked the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle to participate in its Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee (ESAC) — devised in 2019 to create the framework for statewide ethnic studies — they were quick to say yes. Linda Clifton, an active community volunteer and retired educator, took the job. And that’s where they ran into the first problem: the eight-hour orientation was scheduled for Rosh Hashanah.

The oversight seems indicative of why Jewish communities need to be part of discussions around ethnic studies. “Why can’t they read a calendar?” asks Clifton. “It happens over and over and over again. It happens with Seattle schools, it happens with the political parties.”

Clifton requested a date change. “Your ethnic studies is about diversity and inclusion, can you move it?” she asked. The answer was no.

The ESAC was formed after the Washington legislature passed Senate Bill 5023 in 2019 to create a framework for ethnic studies for grades 7-12. The bill states that “basic education is an evolving program of instruction that is intended to provide students with the opportunity to become responsible and respectful global citizens.” SB 6066, in 2020, expanded the reach of ethnic studies to K-6th. In September 2021, after a long and somewhat messy process, OSPI released final framework, pedagogy, and standards alignment developed by ESAC, which provides guidelines and resources for teaching ethnic studies.

Advocates of ethnic studies believe that minority and marginalized students will perform better once they feel more fully included and see their voices and experiences acknowledged and represented. History should shift away from the focus on “dead white men” and reckon more honestly with the legacy of slavery and discrimination. Ethnic studies intends to center Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Latino histories and experiences in particular, but the lens typically widens as needed to include other identities as well as gender.

While ethnic studies may be “intended to provide students with the opportunity to become responsible and respectful global citizens,” it is also a social movement that’s emerging on the front lines of the culture war. Ethnic studies, at least in Western Washington, is not exactly focused on diversity and inclusion, but on reorienting race, power, and privilege and cultivating activists. The OSPI framework is laced with references to examining and dismantling white supremacy, and it relies on sources aligned with a tradition of critical theory and Marxism.

For instance, item one in “Essential Knowledge for an Ethnic Studies Educator,” is “Embracing the purpose of Ethnic Studies, which is to eliminate racism by critiquing, resisting, and transforming systems of oppression on institutional, interpersonal, and internal levels.” In guiding classroom practice, the framework states, “Ethnic Studies critiques racial power dynamics in the U.S. and the world that have centered narratives of whiteness. Using counter-narratives, Ethnic Studies shifts the center of teaching and learning to the stories of people and communities of color and their intersectional experiences.” In a section about affirming the “humanity of all people,” it states, “Students are supported in developing their critical consciousness using historical context to understand and analyze current events, beliefs, and concepts. These actions affirm the humanity of students, educators, and communities by deeply understanding how we are connected historically and how whiteness works to divide us all.”

“The Jewish community is really in an almost impossible position when it come to ethnic studies,” says Jewish Community Relations Council director Max Patashnik. “I think the challenging thing for the Jewish community is that we’re so much in the middle. We don’t even know how we ourselves relate to race. We aren’t squarely included as one of the communities that would be covered in ethnic studies.”

Akiva Erezim, Program Specialist for Continuous Improvement at OSPI and part of the Jewish community “brain trust” that gave collective feedback throughout the development of the framework, expresses outrage at the language. “They talk about eradicating whiteness,” he says. “What does that even mean? Killing white people? And if Jews are white, then what does that mean?”

Erezim, who is based in Olympia, got involved with Seattle-area Jewish community institutions after he brought what he perceived to be a lack of information about Holocaust teaching aids to the attention of Jerry Price, OSPI’s social studies program adviser. Troubled by a Claims Conference study that revealed that 48 percent of Millennials and Gen Z couldn’t name a single concentration camp, and that 11 percent thought Jews actually caused the Holocaust, Erezim argued that OSPI wasn’t making enough of an effort to provide accessible Holocaust information and teaching standards. Price, as it turned out, was in charge of ESAC. He informed Erezim that the Federation had been invited into the ethnic studies process. “Jerry Price then said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not going to botch this one for the Jewish community,’” Erezim recounts. “That was a red flag.”

OSPI didn’t want to botch this for the Jewish community — or themselves — after what went down in California. That state’s first draft of an ethnic studies curriculum in 2019 was roasted for ignoring the state’s large Jewish community — which includes a sizeable population of Jews from Iran and Arab lands — glossing over anti-Semitism as a legitimate threat, tracking in anti-Semitic tropes, and referring to the establishment of the state of Israel in the Arabic term “nakba.” The fallout reverberated around the country.

Jewish community leaders were not the only ones watching how ethnic studies unfolded in Washington. Ethnic studies activists were watching it, too. In August 2020, nonprofit Washington Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN) shared a Facebook post indicating both their fear of “pushback” and their choice to “fight” to include Palestine in curricular materials. (The podcast cited here no longer exists, and the radio station did not return a request for more information.)

Washington Ethnic Studies Now is directed by Tracy Castro-Gill, the former Seattle Public Schools head of ethnic studies, 2019 teacher of the year, and 2019 candidate for the Highline School Board. She was removed from her position at SPS for personal misconduct shortly after her team’s ethnic studies math framework went viral on conservative media. Her reputation precedes her; she’s known as an activist who has gone after people who have gotten on her bad side and as a lightning rod for controversy.

WAESN’s liberation strategy includes a multi-year plan to create and support lesson plans, legislation, certifications, conferences, and to contribute to the body of ethnic studies literature — in short, to become a leading voice in the nationwide development of anti-racist ethnic studies. WAESN is honest about its vision to take Critical Race Theory mainstream, which counters many claims that CRT is an obscure legal tool that never sees the light of the school day.

Castro-Gill at first claimed to have no involvement with the OSPI development of the ethnic studies framework, but her name came up in every conversation. WAESN’s extensive work and advocacy in the field of K-12 ethnic studies had an impact on the final framework. The section called “ethnic studies self-assessment for districts and educators,” which again asks teachers to examine and challenge structural white supremacy, cites WAESN as the source. ESAC leader Jerry Price confirmed that “Because of their experience as the prominent Ethnic Studies organization in Washington, WAESN was engaged throughout the process. Several of their members were part of the Advisory Committee, including Co-facilitator and Washington 2021 Teacher of the Year Brooke Brown.”

The fact that OSPI went with a framework rather than a curriculum sets it apart from California. But without a curriculum, educators who wish to engage with ethnic studies will need to seek out their own professional development, resources, and materials. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the State Board of Education contracted with WAESN for professional development. WAESN is open and ready for business.

According to Castro-Gill, ethnic studies is often misunderstood, since it’s typically presented in higher education as a specific subject, like Asian American history. In K-12, she says, “our focus is more on what some scholars call pan-ethnic studies, which is really the critique of power dynamics in the United States and the world.”

This approach emphasizes decolonization and the deconstruction of whiteness. “You could place any racial or ethnic identity within that power structure and do a critical analysis of where they are [and] how they personally have been impacted and how they have impacted others,” she says. This should be helpful for white students, too, she argues. “What does it mean to be white?” she asks. “What were you before you were white? How does your whiteness impact those around you? How has your whiteness related to race and racism in a sociopolitical context?”

For Castro-Gill, Jews are white, unless they’re not. Jews of color are welcome to the conversation. Because Jews are an ethnicity, not a race, they should not be taking up too much space in the ethnic studies conversation. Because ethnic studies really comes down to race and power, with whites being at the top of the food chain. “A lot of white Jewish folks will claim person-of-color status and not recognize or own their white privilege,” she says.

In a December 2020 open letter to Washington Superintendent Chris Reykdal, Washington Ethnic Studies Now criticized the direction of OSPI’s ethnic studies advisory committee for its tacit support of white supremacy. (This letter resulted in changes to the composition of the committee, including the introduction of Verónica N. Vélez, a professor of education at Western Washington University who specializes in critical theories.) For one, ESAC was led by a white man, Jerry Price, who “was given the role simply because he’s the social studies lead” — a fundamental error in thinking about ethnic studies as a lens for every subject. “Additionally,” the letter states, “there is concern that several members of the committee don’t have a basic understanding of anti-racism and/or Ethnic Studies. At least one member has made statements regarding Ethnic Studies epistemological ideology stating that it’s ‘problematic’ and ‘divisive’ and called Tracy a racist for demanding voices of Color be centered in this work.”

The complaint resembles an incident that Linda Clifton recounts, although Castro-Gill says she was not referring to Clifton in the letter.

Clifton, who had missed the orientation for Rosh Hashanah and had trouble obtaining notes from it, caught up as much as she could and joined a subcommittee for educators, putting her head down and getting to work. Because of her history as a classroom teacher for over 30 years in Eastern Washington and Seattle suburbs, her work on statewide educational initiatives, and experience with teacher training, she thought this committee would be a good use of her skills and time.

“And that’s where everything really went south,” she says. “If we’re rolling this out statewide and we really want teachers to understand what this is and actually respond positively, it has to be in language they understand.” Clifton challenged the use of the term “Indigenous epistemologies.” “I said, ‘I have a PhD and I don’t understand this phrase.’” In the same conversation, Clifton challenged the use of the word “replace,” because it reminded her of the march on Charlottesville, where white nationalists chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”

“And that’s when I was called out for being white,” she says. It was Castro-Gill, she says, who shut her down. (Castro-Gill denies this.) The room fell silent. “And what’s most upsetting was that nobody said a word. Not a word.”

Castro-Gill expresses perplexity as to why Jews seem to take up so much space in discussions about oppression. “I’m always confused when it comes to the Jewish question, as if Jewish people have the monopoly on these types of unique experiences and unique oppressions, right? That’s not the case, and people of color have suffered genocide 10 times the rate of Jewish people,” she says.

Enter power, stage right.

“If we look at the California ethnic studies curriculum, Jewish, conservative, Jewish white folks shut it down because of the critical analysis of what’s happening in Palestine,” Castro-Gill explains. “Because they felt that examining what’s happening in Palestine was anti-Semitic. I disagree. It’s a critical analysis of power dynamics. In Washington state, when they were doing the Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee…they had to run it by the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. Why do white Jews get to act as a barrier or a gatekeeper to the work of people of color?”

In spring of 2021, American Jews were attacked on the streets of New York and Los Angeles because of the conflict between Gaza and Israel. “When you slander the state of Israel, it ends up creating violence,” OSPI’s Erezim says. “It’s the same thing when you call [Covid-19] ‘Wuhan flu.’ With the decolonization approach they take to this work, they’ll be encouraging kids to view Israel as a settler-colonial state.”

However, Castro-Gill doesn’t see any causal connection or systemic pattern. “If it’s a hate crime, it’s a hate crime,” she says. “What if it’s a person of color? If it’s a trans person, if it’s a Jewish person, the consequences are the same. Why is it a Jewish question?”

Compared to where it started, the ethnic studies framework is in a good place, the JCRC’s Patashnik says. The final version of the framework toned down a lot of the decolonization talk. Her concerns lie with the open-ended nature and the lack of professional development. It would not be hard for a teacher to slide in anti-Jewish bias or misinformation or just flatten the Jewish experience out of ignorance. And she’s concerned about the role of WAESN. But for now, she feels positive about where it stands.

OSPI’s ethnic studies framework is not the only one that exists in Washington, however. The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), a centrist civil liberties nonprofit, is developing an alternative version. “Our approach [is to] focus on what brings people together and what’s the common humanity in people and focus on what has actually happened in history,” says FAIR Spokane chapter leader Aaron Monheim. Monheim is Jewish, his wife is Vietnamese, and he is concerned for how their daughter will be taught about her position in society. “Don’t go and sidestep things if it’s difficult; don’t hide things that are difficult to discuss. Do it in an open and loving and pro-human way. There’s a way to [do it without] telling children that they are a victim or that they are oppressed or an oppressor based on their phenotypical traits.”

Ethnic studies is enshrined in law and will continue to evolve — the next step will likely be to mandate ethnic studies as a graduation requirement. “We’ll be keeping our ear to the ground and looking out for the wellbeing of Jewish students,” Patashnik says. “We’ll do this in partnership with other local organizations that also have a vested interest.”

Erezim points out that parents can go through a grievance process with OSPI if their children come across discrimination in the classroom. Imbued with purpose, Erezim is trying to add “Jewish community liaison” to his title. But like others who row upstream against the popular ethnic studies current, he’s nervous and afraid for both his security in speaking out and the future of the country.

“What I wish people would do is read the story of [Soviet refusnik] Natan Sharansky. What were seeing right now is so eerily reminiscent,” he says. “On every page, [I think,] why is this happening again? And to me? In the government? I’m thankful I don’t have to go to the Gulag. But the same philosophy is propelling this ethic students curriculum. It’s not as bad as then, but it’s pernicious.”

The difference is that Sharansky thought control came down from the state to the people, Erezim says. “Here, I think it’s coming from the people to the state,” he says. “It’s the same ideology.”


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