American identities

Convincing Trump supporters on the shared-identity question is only half the hurdle. The melting pot image doesn’t have a very good reputation among minorities, many of whom would argue that they were never allowed to fully blend into the US’s bubbling cauldron. They feel just as marginalized and misunderstood as Trump rural voters—and also threatened, now that a candidate who was openly hostile to (or plainly ignorant of) their communities has won the presidency.

Americans in these communities want to be acknowledged, and for many of them, that means including their accomplishments in K-12 curriculums.

Protesters gather to support Mexican American Studies in Phoenix.
Minority groups want to see their experience reflected in history lessons at public schools.
Image: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

They’re unlikely to back down, as demonstrated by an ongoing textbook fight in Texas. The state’s population is nearly 40% Hispanic, including people whose ancestors, before the American Revolution, settled in what is now Texas. Hispanic activists and scholars have long argued that this experience should be reflected in what Texas children are learning in school. They say that rather than displace American values, ethnic studies are an opportunity to teach all Americans how connected they are through history.

“Learning about each other’s diversity is a sign of strength for our nation,” says Celina Moreno, a lawyer at Latino civil rights group MALDEF.

MALDEF and other groups involved in the Texas textbook dispute won a small victory in 2015, when the State Board of Education made a call for Mexican-American history textbooks for optional courses. The sole submission, however, contained factual errors and assertions such as the one below:

Stereotypically, Mexicans were viewed as lazy compared to European or American workers… Mexican laborers were not reared to put in a full day’s work so vigorously. There was a cultural attitude of “mañana,” or “tomorrow,” when it came to high-gear production. It was also traditional to skip work on Mondays, and drinking on the job could be a problem.

Hispanic activists revolted against the book, calling it racist and inaccurate. In a telling sign of the country’s gaping cultural divide, some just didn’t see their point. “It’s really kind of perplexing as to what all the controversy is,” education board member David Bradley told the Texas Tribune. “I am French-Irish, and you don’t see the French or the Irish pounding the table wanting special treatment, do you?” He also indicated in an email obtained through an open records request that board members should skip the meeting to discuss the text to “deny the Hispanics a record vote,” according to the Tribune.

He was the only member who didn’t show up to the Nov. 16 meeting. Dozens of Hispanic activists attended. They prevailed: The board rejected the book. But the curriculum remains unchanged, so they’re still losing on that front.

Research shows that minorities benefit when they learn about their communities. A paper published by Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis earlier this year looked at the effects of ethnic studies courses in San Francisco high schools and found that they increased ninth-grade attendance by 21% and GPA by 1.4 grade points. Another one, from the University of Arizona, showed that students who took Mexican-American studies courses were more likely to pass state standardized texts and graduate from high school. (Some academics suggest that white students also benefit from the exposure.)

The gains go beyond report cards, says Albert Camarillo, a Stanford University professor credited with helping start the Mexican-American studies field. “It gives people a sense that they too are part of the fabric of the larger society, rather than marginal people on the side of it,” he says.

That feeling might go a long way in turning out minorities to the polls. Hispanics and Asians, two of the fastest-growing demographic groups, vote at much lower rates than their white peers. Their failure to fully participate in the political process is as big a risk to representative democracy as an authoritarian insurgency.

Learning together

In the end, the curriculum may be less important than the overall school experience. As Thurgood Marshall, the country’s first black Supreme Court justice, put it: “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”

He wrote that in a 1974 opinion on a case about school segregation. More than 40 years later, US classrooms are still not integrated. In fact, the share of intensely segregated schools, those that are 90% to 100% nonwhite, has been rising in past decades, according to a May report by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

That kind of segregation, says Kahlenberg, of the Century Foundation, “undercuts the message that in a democracy everyone is equal and should have equal voice.”

But that’s the message Americans need to figure out how to restore, whether by civics courses or ethnic studies, school integration, or any other methods, if they want to preserve their democracy.

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