A beautiful thing about MLK Day is that regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, it is a day of meditation on issues of race, class, oppression and struggles for social justice and equality.

As the sun began setting this Monday, I allowed myself a moment to reflect on race issues here in Santa Monica, going for a walk, and reading an AP story in the Daily Press on MLK. It described that MLK “was very human,” he operated in a world of “turmoil and constant violence,” and yet he was a visionary thinker who advocated dialogue as an undeniable instrument for achieving social justice. He, like the field of ethnic studies, served not only the black community, but other groups, and especially Euro-Americans.

Victoria Gray’s letter importantly stressed that Santa Monica High School needs pro-active solutions to recent racial tensions (“Reactive, not proactive” Letters to the Editor, Jan.14-15). She also suggested curriculum changes. Samohi currently offers Harlem renaissance and Chicano literature (which I helped revive in 2000), but these are only offered as electives at the senior level. The freshman seminar was the idea of Mothers for Justice, and was meant to teach cultural diversity. The Association of Mexican American Educators (AMAE) believes more ethnic studies curriculum can inspire and interconnect students more.

Studies and programs prove that students of color do better academically when curriculum reflects their experience and they see the school space as their own. School board member Oscar de la Torre commented that youth involved in fights often experience family and economic difficulties and feel alienated at school. This also speaks to hiring teachers of color or educators that grew up in the Pico Neighborhood.

Policing and mediation is necessary, but limited. In 1998, after deadly gang fights in the Westside, community leaders deliberately opposed a police solution as the main solution. Throwing millions at the police department was not going to address our historical, social, educational problems. That organic movement created the social services of the Pico Youth & Family Center (PYFC).

AMAE also finds it unfortunate that the majority of students at Olympic High are Latino males. We have discussed suggesting a Social Justice Department at Samohi and Olympic which could house raza studies, African-American studies, ethnic studies, hip-hop studies, and LGBT studies (which recently became a charge from the state). This is a larger vision and would be a big endeavor. But so were Dr. King’s ideas.

MLK and Malcolm X taught activists that intelligence, courage and language were key to a community’s well-being. Their fights against racism, especially as they paid increasing attention to internationalism and inter-racial collaboration, also humanized whites. This was lost on Arizona Republicans like John McCain who attempted to block the campaign to give MLK a national holiday in the 1990s. One Republican legislator at the time falsely reasoned that MLK “only helped the colored people,” implying whites were unaffiliated to racism.

A recent letter suggested race is obsolete. This “colorblindness,” however, ignores that race is a daily and violent reality for some. Chicano/Mexican is not a race, but they do experience racism. Legal scholar Ian Haney-Lopez’ “Racism On Trial” explains the complex legal, racial history of Chicanos in the Southwest. The racial make-up of Mexicans is predominantly Indian-mestizo but is also rich with black, Arab and Asian ancestry. The Chicano/Puerto Rican Mendez family desegregated schools in California in 1943.

But you would only learn this in an ethnic studies class.

Chicanos/Latinos are weathering another wave of anti-Latino racism, most vivid in Arizona. In Arizona, laws criminalize brown Americans and try to arrest their minds. Republicans recently destroyed a dynamic Chicano studies program in Tucson, banning Chicano history book “Occupied America,” novels and even Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Republicans there have the institutional power to get away with racism.

On Saturday my daughter danced at the Santa Monica Symphony MLK Commemorative Concert. I felt so proud of her and the young dancers of Cabeza de Baca Cultural. Children did Aztec dance, sang the Tongva (original peoples of Santa Monica) welcome song, and performed ballet folclórico. As they marched off stage a voice announced, “we will now begin the official program.” This made me think of how Latino/indigenous cultures are too easily marginalized, criminalized or relegated to the shadows.

AMAE and PYFC have for years developed raza/ethnic studies curriculum through day of the dead, Cesar Chavez and Malcolm X day events. Several AMAE members teach Chicano studies and most have taken these classes during college. Chicano studies contributed to our self-knowledge and identity, inspired us to teach, get PhDs and be civically responsible. Chicano studies encourages students to “return to the varrio,” serving the underprivileged. What’s missing is commitment from school leaders.

Chicano/ethnic studies were central to radical scholarship of the 1960s, which Edward Said called the “massive intellectual, moral, and imaginative overhaul and deconstruction of western representation of the non-western world.” This was a global paradigm shift when knowledge became more diverse, accurate and less racist. Most take for granted the contributions of U.S. ethnic studies to lessons in literature, critical studies, history, women’s studies, sociology and social sciences. Ethnic studies departments and scholars were the first to do important research into topics of race, class, gender, sexuality and the intersection of these.

I echo Gray’s appropriate call for “proven racial empathy programs implemented at the school to teach our students about each other’s cultures.” In the true spirit of Dr. King’s vision and persistence, Santa Monica can be exemplary in institutionalizing inclusive and innovative instruction. Indeed, ethnic studies curriculum is about building a better, interwoven school community and world.

Elias Serna is president of the AMAE Santa Monica-West L.A. Chapter. He can be reached at esern002@ucr.edu.

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