Racist Incidents are Increasing. Can Ethnic Studies Address the Problem?
By Kara Cisco
If you’ve been following the latest education policy news from the Minnesota State Capitol, you know that the House Omnibus Education Bill (HF4300) contains some changes to social studies requirements, such as a mandatory semester-long high school Ethnic Studies course beginning in the 2024-25 school year and Ethnic Studies instruction in elementary and middle schools beginning in the 2025-26 school year. The bill also supports the development of Ethnic Studies standards, training materials, and a model curriculum drawing on the history of Latino, Black, Asian-American/Pacific Islander (AAPI), and Indigenous populations in the United States.
While I frankly expect much of this language to be amended or deleted in the final education bill, its value shouldn’t be undersold. I can’t help but reflect on the numerous recent incidents of hate speech and racial bullying at high school basketball and hockey games this year. The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) is working on several strategies to address these incidents, including creating a code of conduct that will be sent out to school boards, parents, teachers, students, and coaches, according to a recent memo from the league. But I wonder if creating a code of conduct and educating a handful of leaders will be enough to prevent racist incidents like these in the future.
The shocking and hateful epithets heard in high school gymnasiums, arenas, and rinks this winter were a logical outcome of our current U.S. History standards and textbooks.
The fact of the matter is, an Ethnic Studies graduation requirement is an urgent need for all students in Minnesota. As a teacher, I have to believe that the shocking and hateful epithets heard in high school gymnasiums, arenas, and rinks this winter were a logical outcome of our current U.S. History standards and textbooks. Students who don’t understand the historical and current implications of their words and actions behave with insolence because we fail to fully teach our country’s history; we downplay the extent of its racial violence and mask ongoing institutional inequities. And this interpretation of history reinforces the invisibility (or neutrality) of whiteness and discourages students from examining the gross injustices of the past and present.
A growing body of research consistently reports that Ethnic Studies courses have a positive impact on white students when it comes to empathy, cross-cultural communication, civil discourse, and more.
Of course, Ethnic Studies is critically important for its representation of global majority students, who so very rarely see themselves in the curriculum. Yet, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Ethnic Studies benefits white students, too. A growing body of research consistently reports that Ethnic Studies courses have a positive impact on white students when it comes to empathy, cross-cultural communication, and civil discourse. Other large-scale, quantitative studies of Ethnic Studies programs in the Tucson and San Francisco school districts demonstrate positive outcomes for students. Participation in an Ethnic Studies course significantly increases the likelihood of high school graduation and promotes student engagement and persistence as measured by attendance and credits earned. Some local and national policymakers have expressed concern that Ethnic Studies may make white students feel uncomfortable or guilty, but emerging research shows that the opposite is true. In reality, Ethnic Studies classes lead to positive and secure identity development in white students.
The Ethnic Studies provision in the House Education Omnibus Bill is a step in the right direction for Minnesota. While efforts like MSHSL’s Code of Conduct are an appropriate response to the racial incidents that disrupted high school sports this year, we cannot fully rid ourselves of this crisis of hate speech through punishment. Students who know they’ll be punished for their behavior will only look for ways to behave more inconspicuously. Real, lasting change—and an end to the slurs and name-calling that devastated teams and canceled games—can only come when students understand the full history and impact of their words.
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