Visalia Unified’s ethnic studies class focuses on racism

Residents question timing, process and textbook for pilot course being taught at Redwood High School

VISALIA – Visalia residents are concerned an ethnic studies class being piloted at Redwood High School this year teaches students white settlers are the root of all evil in American history.

Visalian, Jerrold Jensen began questioning the timing of the class, the process by which it was approved and the textbook driving the curriculum for the class in a Dec. 12 letter. The proposed ethnic studies course, a first for Visalia Unified, was approved by the Visalia Unified School District board on July 28, 2020 agenda, where it was listed as “Grade 9-12 proposal for course outline” and buried on page 237 of the agenda packet (Enclosure No. 19) during a pandemic when many felt isolated from public meetings. Jensen argues it was hastily approved for the fall without input from parents due to rising public pressure on the heels of the killing of George Floyd half way across the country and an ensuing Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest where a protester was hit by a vehicle on Mooney Boulevard on May 30 and a confrontation between students and a group of middle-aged women over BLM signs at El Diamante High School on June 24.

The district’s description of the course was to “study the history, achievements, contributions, and struggles of diverse ethnic groups in America, specifically, but not limited to, Native Americans, African-Americans, Latino/Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, Middle Eastern, and European populations.” It also included a section on women’s contributions in American history. The description goes on to say “Students will examine their understanding of race and ethnicity, focusing on its origins, transformations, and how it is perceived in contemporary times.” The course is an elective, meaning it is not required, and a recognized college course accepted by both the California State University and University of California systems but has yet to be mandated as a high school graduation requirement by the state.

“There has been considerable local discussion about VUSD’s ethnic studies program,” Jensen wrote in his letter, points which he reinforced in another letter to board president Juan Guerrero on Jan. 7 and during public comment at the Jan. 12 school board meeting. “There are many questions about the timing, the State mandate and the district’s apparent urgency to institute the class.”

Book marked

More than the course itself, Jensen’s objection centers around the textbook approved for the class.

Jensen describes “A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America,” by Ronald Takaki as only about establishing “victimhood” using conditions that existed 50 to 400 years ago before the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“The book offers a biased view of history and essentially declares all citizens of color are victims of oppression and exploitation by the descendants of White Europeans,” Jensen wrote.

In the opening chapter of the book, adapted for high school reading three years after his death, the late Takaki tells of his multicultural upbringing in Hawaii, where his friends were Korean, Portuguese and Hawaiian, and his stepfather was Chinese. It wasn’t until he attended college on the mainland that he experienced racism, as subtle as classmates asking where he learned English to his future father-in-law unwilling to accept his daughter was going to marry a Japanese man.

“We must remember the histories of every group, for together they tell the story of a nation peopled by the world. As the time approaches when all Americans will be minorities, we face a challenge: not just to understand the world, but to make it better.”

He previews the rest of the book as a way to “recover the missing chapters of American history.” But Jensen notes on page 6 of the book states “The Master Narrative says that our country was settled by European immigrants, and that Americans are white. People of other races, people not of European ancestry have been pushed to the sidelines…” He said only two pages cover the Civil War fought to end slavery in this country where an estimated 620,000 mostly white soldiers died and the description of World War II as a “war of racial hatreds” rather than retaliation for an attack on American soil.

“This book is an absolute insult to America,” Jensen said.

Jensen said the book’s biggest failure is not presenting to students the idea that Americans have supported correcting the wrongs of previous generations in order to create equal opportunity, regardless of race, color or creed.

“Visalia Unified should not allow your ethnic studies program to teach all non-white students to believe they are victims,” Jensen writes. “Rather, teach them we were founded as an imperfect union but piece by piece we continue to make progress towards a goal of equal opportunity for all.”

Jensen challenged Takaki’s assertion that descendants of European immigrants are to blame for all of America’s race problems noting other cultures, including the author’s own heritage, as the Japanese perpetrated “centuries of racist treatment of other Asians” and forced their own women to serve as concubines for Japanese soldiers. He also ignores the atrocities European immigrants escaped from their countries of origin.

“In my opinion, the author completely ignored the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the treatment of those who immigrated to America,” Jensen stated in his letter. “Locally, they were banned from owning property in Visalia and were forced to build their beautiful church on useless farmland in Yettem. Our local students should understand that history if they are going to have an ethnic studies class.”

During the Jan. 12 meeting, the 80-year-old Jensen shared historical footnotes of America as an evolving land of opportunity in “its move to correct racial injustices” just in his lifetime. In 1948, when he was 7 years old, President Harry Truman ordered the integration of U.S. Armed Forces and six years later the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of all schools. In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to enforce the integration of schools in Little Rock, Ark. And five years later President John F. Kennedy sent federal troops to help with the integration of the University of Mississippi. In 1963, America adopted the Equal Pay Act, benefiting women in the workforce, and Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his letter from the Birmingham jail that became an important text in the civil rights movement, that resulted in the watershed Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in subsequent years that also ended limits on Asian immigration.

“No current Black or Asian student at Visalia Unified and few of their parents have ever lived in that legally segregated America that existed before 1965,” Jensen said.

Jensen said the book equally ignores historical milestones of minorities after 1965, such as Gen. Colin Powell being the first Black man appointed as commander of all U.S. Military Forces in 1989 and in 2001 being appointed secretary of state, putting him fourth in the line of succession from the presidency. He was succeeded by a black woman, Dr. Condoleezza Rice and in 2008 Barack Obama was elected as the first Black president.

“I urge you to remove Mr. Takaki’s dismal textbook from any Visalia Unified classroom,” Jensen concluded.

Board approved

VUSD Superintendent Tamara Ravalin responded to Jensen’s letter in a Dec. 29 email explaining the elective course was meant to “complement our required history and social studies curriculum, we endeavored to include all ethnic groups that compromise our nation.” She said the textbook was easily accessible to most high school readers as an overview of multicultural topics with limitations on the depth of the material covered.

The course outline and textbook were approved by the College Board for Advanced Placement courses. Ravalin said there was only one other textbook approved by the college board for ethnic studies titled A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

“It is much longer, a more difficult read, and I think would be considered far more controversial,” she wrote.

Ravalin said the state was in the process of adopting ethnic studies curriculum for high school students but Jensen argues the mandate was rejected by the governor. Assembly Bill 331 was introduced by Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside) in the assembly a year ago but was vetoed by Gov. Newsom on Sept. 30.

The governor did sign Assembly Bill 1460 into law on Aug. 18 requiring California State University freshman to take a three-unit class in Native American, African American, Asian American and Latino studies. The law, authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (R-San Diego), made California the first state to require ethnic studies as a university graduation requirement, according to the California Faculty Association. The requirement will take effect with the graduating class of the 2024-25 academic year. CSU is the largest university system in the nation with 23 campuses enrolling 484,000 students.

Later in the Jan. 12 meeting, Brandon Gridiron, administrator of equity and student services for the district, said the course was adopted as part of a recommendation of the inclusivity task force created three years ago to create events and activities that promote awareness of diverse cultures on VUSD campuses. Gridiron pointed out many students were not aware of the milestones pointed out by Jensen underscoring the need for ethnic studies.

“We need to create spaces where our students begin to see themselves in the text in the context of what they are learning but also learn about other cultures and contributions of other cultures within our country,” Gridiron said.

He also shared the task force’s student goals for 2020-21 included more diverse literature, a focus on inclusive environments to address racial tension and staff goals to engage in teaching multicultural texts and incorporating civil discourse with a goal of having at least one person at each school site who has undergone cultural proficiency training.

“Our goal is to have staff, at least one adult, to create these environments and have these discussions at all sites,” Gridiron said.

Jensen noted the ethnic studies requirement had been vetoed by the governor twice, was not scheduled to take effect until the graduating class of 2029 and the revisions are putting a greater emphasis on local community involvement, something VUSD was sorely lacking its approval of the pilot. Jensen sent a copy of the textbook to each board member and had requested the course and the textbook back to the school board for a lengthy discussion with the community at the Jan. 12 meeting.

Parent review

School board members, three of which were not seated when the course and textbook were approved, agreed with Jensen’s suggestion. Boardmember Walta Gamoian said she wanted to hear public input on the matter and hear from the teacher and students in the Redwood High School class at the next meeting on Jan. 26.

Newly elected Megan Soleno Casebeer suggested pushing the item to an agenda in February to give board members time to review the book to have a meaningful discussion. Board members Jacqui Gaebe and John Crabtree suggested having students comment about the class and what they learned at the meeting and board members Joy Naylor intimated at seeing a course outline or examples of class projects and discussions.

Board president Juan Guerrero said he wanted to have a study session rather than a 10-minute discussion on a normal agenda item next month. He said he has heard concerns over ethnic studies from both sides, those that think the course lacks context and those who think minorities have been marginalized in traditional history books. He agreed with Jensen no social science class should beleaguer the worst parts of any history.

“If you are getting a lot of negative stuff over here, let’s balance it out,” Guerrero said. “We can’t always be talking about deficits, we have to talk about positive things, too.”

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