Can Ethnic Studies Help Heal Race Relations?

Driving through Marin County, there’s no shortage of Black Lives Matter signs adorning front lawns, store fronts and the back windshields. While this comes as no surprise in our liberal leaning community, it stands in stark contrast to our highly white enclave — the county is 71% white according to the latest US Census Bureau findings — symbolic of the inflection point we have reached with race relations in America. 

In light of this racial reckoning, schools districts around the country are taking it upon themselves to empower students and heal racial wounds. One tactic: mandating social justice, ethnic studies and civic leadership into core curriculum. California has been on the front lines of this educational push. Berkeley and San Francisco Unified have led the charge — the former has mandated ethnic studies for all 9th graders since 1991, while the latter has offered ethnic studies courses at the high school level for over a decade. 

In 2018, Governor Gavin Newsom approved a plan making ethnic studies a graduation requirement at the college level throughout the California State University system. Today, administrators, teachers, and community members from all over the state are calling for high school districts to require this type of curriculum as well, a proposal Newsom is behind, but has yet to pass.  

So what are Marin County high schools doing in light of the national protests and BLM movement? Administrators agree that introducing ethnic studies — and concepts about structural racism and social justice — are essential learning today. At the moment, ethnic studies, the interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity and indigeneity with a focus on the experiences of people of color, is offered as an elective, says Dr. Kimberlee Armstrong, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services at the Tamalpais District (which includes ten districts). Armstrong is part of a task force developing a curriculum called, “An Examination of Race in the United States,” for grades 10-12. Once approved by the school board, it will be required for all students to graduate. 


Armstrong adds that her aim is to ensure that the curriculum in high schools reflects the students of Marin and is historically accurate. According to the California Department of Education, the student demographic breakdown is reflective of Marin as a whole: 70% white, 14.2% Latino, 7.2% Asian-American, 2.4% African-American, and 1% Filipino. 

Interestingly, demographics that include elementary schools are different: 56% of the student body are white. “It’s more important than ever to prepare students for an increasingly diverse world,” Founder of Marin-based social justice organization E3, Dr. JuanCarlos Arauz. “Fact is, talking about diversity, race, is beneficial for all students.”

He should know. JuanCarlos happens to be the Director of Equity Inclusion at independent Marin County high school, The Branson School, as well. JuanCarlos, whose objective is to identify ways for Branson to be more “equitable and inclusive,” brought the renowned Princeton University Professor, activist and philosopher Dr. Cornel West to the campus last year for a conversation about community. Dr. West and noted speaker and scholar-activist Bakari Kitwana, spoke to a full house of parents and students at the campus auditorium. The moving event (I was in attendance) in his words, “was an attempt to redefine student achievement to not be solely about good grades & test scores that compare one another.” 

Armstrong says the approach is comprehensive, and that recruitment and retention of teachers of color is also a priority for the district. It’s estimated that 89% of the teachers in Marin are white, so training and professional development on how to teach the material is part of the initiative, as well.   

A small sampling of Marin parents I spoke with say they support this education. Cherie Slane of San Anselmo, who is white and a mother of two elementary school kids in the district, says she would like for this curriculum to start before high school. 

“There’s an illiteracy about race in Marin, in part because we live in a bubble,” says Slane. “The world is so different today,” adding that she sometimes augments her children’s school learning with books and films about the civil rights movement or Maya Angelou. “I want my children to learn about important historical and current figures of color.” 

A mother of a mixed race student at San Domenico High School, who wanted to remain anonymous, says she is very happy with the efforts the school has made to address race and social justice issues. Especially because prior to this her son attended a public school in Mill Valley where there was virtually no instruction or discussions about race.  

“Students build amazing skills like innovation, adaptability, critical thinking when we deeply engage with others different than ourselves,” says JuanCarlos. “We know that all students will benefit from being able to interact in a diverse world, and those who aren’t prepared will be left behind.”  

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Nicole BalinNicole Balin is a resident of San Rafael and graduated with an Ethnic Studies degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1992.