Deep Dive: Teaching Multicultural History Passes Into Law — With Similar Opposition from a Few Decades Ago

In Florida, a textbook publisher has removed mention of the fact that Rosa Parks was Black. The Florida governor has signed legislation that prohibits instruction that could make students “feel responsibility, guilt, or anguish for what other members of their race did in the past,” according to political news source The Hill.

The elementary school lesson in that textbook originally stated: “The law said African Americans had to give up their seats on the bus if a white person wanted to sit down.”

Then it was changed to: “She was told to move to a different seat because of the color of her skin.”

With the governor’s mandate, the textbook now reads: “She was told to move to a different seat.”

In the 1970s, Minnesota was a leader in requiring the development of multicultural education— a curriculum policy that began to erode in the 1980s. We revisited that story in our book, 35 Years of Minnesota Women (Minnesota Women’s Press, 2021).

We asked The UpTake reporter Cirien Saadeh to share the story of how the current Minnesota legislature is addressing ethnic studies. New material has been added to this online version, expanding on the print version, based on recent legislative discussions.

March: House Committees

In March, at a House Education Policy Committee discussion in March, Augsburg University student Veronica Arellano-Martinez said most of her Harding High School classmates in Saint Paul were not white. “Our education did not reflect us,” she said. “I strongly believe that if our education was more inclusive and we had ethnic studies in our K-12 schools, students like me would gain a better understanding of their own identity, feel more connected to their community, and be interested in pursuing higher education.”

In the House, ethnic studies legislation was introduced in 2023 by chief author Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura (DFL–District 63A). Sencer-Mura’s House File 1502 has 34 other co-authors, all from the DFL party. In the Senate, Sen. Mary Kunesh (DFL–39) is the chief author of Senate File 1476, which has four other DFL authors.

Both bills would require that ethnic studies be taught in Minnesota schools and that a working group be formed to support the development of ethnic studies curriculum through the state Department of Education.

In the 1970s, Minnesota was the first state to mandate multicultural and “gender-fair” curricula. Pushback ended the effort in the 1990s.

Many people oppose the bills. At the House Education Policy Committee hearing, Jeff Peterson, a volunteer with the Minnesota chapter of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), said that his organization opposes the legislation because it does not uphold the objectives of promoting “civil rights for all Americans and a common culture based on fairness, understanding, and humanity.”

Peterson said, “We believe that our future depends on our ability to teach children the nonpartisan habits and values necessary to the proper functioning of a liberal democracy. HF1502 would have Minnesota schools teach … liberated ethnic studies, and it is heavily focused on race consciousness and identity politics. Liberated ethnic studies’ intent is on alienating youth from our institutions, emphasizing victimization rather than agency and heightening awareness of group differences.”

Rep. Ben Bakeberg (R–District 54B) indicated that some legislators object to ethnic studies curriculum as a mandate.

There was similar opposition in the Senate Education Policy Committee, with Robert Osburn of the Wilberforce Academy speaking against the Senate bill. “This legislation mandates an ideologically loaded version of ethnic studies that violates long-standing standards that forbid public entities from advantaging one particular religious or philosophical viewpoint over others,” he said.

Sen. Kunesh responded to Osburn’s comments.“Ethnic studies is a curriculum for all students [to learn] important insights of their own heritages and that of others.”

Sen. Zach Duckworth (R–District 57) said, “This bill would mandate [an ethnic studies requirement] from a top-down level — from the State of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Education — rather than allowing districts and communities to come about it organically.”

Rep. Sencer-Mura noted that in February, young people from across the state rallied in support of ethnic studies education. She also stated that 30 school districts in Minnesota already offer courses that would meet an ethnic studies requirement.

“There’s a metaphor in education that says the best education should offer students mirrors and windows,” she said. “Mirrors to be able to see themselves and windows to be able to see and understand other experiences and other cultures. Currently so much of our curriculum in Minnesota is lacking those windows and mirrors. Ethnic studies is an opportunity to start changing that.”

Among other provisions, the Ethnic Studies for All bill would provide financial support to aid school districts in the development and implementation of ethnic studies curriculum, tailored to their community needs and interests.

NEW April: Senate Discussion

The omnibus education policy bill, SF1311, was introduced by chief author Sen. Steve Cwodzinski (DFL–District 49) who said teachers he has spoken with since the pandemic indicated they believed that the COVID experience would force lawmakers and education policymakers to see the whole student again instead of just the academic needs of students. The bill addresses some of those ‘whole student’ needs by including ethnic studies, civics, personal finance requirements, non-exclusionary discipline, American Indian/Indigenous education, anti-bullying policy, and improvements to support teachers of color.

Cwodzinski said that he and Sen. Mary Kunesh (DFL–District 39), Senate Education Finance chair, have a combined 60 years of experience as teachers, “And we get it.”

Sen. Jim Abeler (GOP–District 35) offered an A35 amendment and an A36 amendment with new language — open to word-smithing — that would reduce assumptions of inherent racism. The suggested new wording: “The purpose of this section is to advance student knowledge, understanding, and humanity so that students will make constructive contributions to their communities, their country, and the world throughout their lives and their personal relationships.”

Sen. Bonnie Westlin (DFL–District 42) responded by indicating that the new language “really waters down the intention here. Inherent in the work of anti-racism is the notion that people can behave and operate in ways that are racist, that are not intentionally so. It’s implicit bias. It’s something that gets baked into how we’re raised, the influences around us. I think we need to stick with the language in the original bill.”

Westlin added that the new language, “seems focused on protecting white feelings. My feelings don’t need to be protected, it’s okay to be confronted with things.” She said that if we approach things that make us uncomfortable with a sense of curiosity, “there’s a lot of great learning that can happen.”

Westlin indicated that she believes Abeler’s intentions are good — “I want to be very clear about that,” she said. “I just don’t think this is the way to go about that.”

Kunesh responded by reading the definition of ethnic studies listed in the original bill: “Ethnic studies means the critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity with a focus on the experience and perspectives of people of color within and beyond the United States. Ethnic studies analyzes the way in which race and racism have been and continue to be powerful social, cultural, and political forces, and the ways in which race and racism are connected to other axis of stratification — including stratification based on gender, disability, class, sex, orientation, gender identity, and legal status.”

The amendment wording indicates that individuals do not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by others of the same race or sex. Kunesh commented: “That might be true, but there are people of different races and sexual orientations that are still being oppressed for those reasons. And so, yes, individuals are responsible for that, and there are people that are doing those kinds of oppression to this day because they feel they are superior.“

Kunesh went on to respond to the concept of not wanting individuals to feel discomfort. “Imagine the discomfort of our African American people who were hung for any reason. imagine the discomfort of our Jewish folks when their synagogues are bombed and people shoot them up or spray things on the outside. Imagine the discomfort of our Asian Americans who have been victim to discrimination and acts of violence. Imagine the discomfort of our American Indian people realizing that this country that they lived on was stolen from them and that our Native American women go missing at more numbers than any other group of women. If these things cause you discomfort, then it tells you that your conscience is working and we need to make a change for that.”

Sen. Zach Duckworth (GOP–District 57) expressed concern that students will leave public schools “being ashamed of, or confused about, or not proud of our great country. The United States of America in its history is certainly not a perfect one, but I can tell you with certainty that our country and our state has accomplished more good than bad. And one of the beautiful things regarding our democracy, our system and form of government, [is that it has] evolved to include as many voices as possible. Our system of government actually goes so far as to protect minority classes and ensure they have a voice in our government and are not left out. So although we may be an imperfect nation, the history of the course of our country has shown that we are a self-correcting one.”

Duckworth indicated that his objection to the bill was a concern that it would be a “reason for parents to seek education outside of our public schools,” he said. “I don’t want it to be a reason that we continue to find ourselves as Minnesotans and Americans more divided and more polarized.”

He said the focus should be on academic success of students, and that “politics should be out of the classroom.”

Sen. Erin Maye Quade (DFL–District 56) said the amendments have a fundamental misunderstanding about how race, racism, and white supremacy work. “The fundamental misunderstanding here is that racism is not about individual acts. Yes, [those individual acts] can be brutal and violent. Those are the ones we often see on the news — the shooting of Mr. Yarl, the murder of George Floyd, the killing of Breonna Taylor — we can go on and on. But it is the systemic ways in which racism and white supremacy show up that are actually killing people.

Quade continued: “Of course diversity is good. I say this as one of the first Black women ever elected to this body, literally in 2022, standing in a room where we have four white dudes on the corners looking out over us. But … if we do not analyze the ways in which our systems were built upon the belief of white supremacy, we can never rebuild our systems to do the wonderful things that Senator Duckworth talked about.”

After citing other under-known aspects of violence against communities of color, Quade added: “If we keep talking as if the individual acts are the things that are wrong, and not the systems that those individuals built and perpetuated … we [continue to build] a system on racist beliefs. We have an opportunity here in this bill to make sure children learn the real history — the great things we have done, the bad things we have done — because if we don’t learn about them we will continue to do [the wrong things].”

Sen. Abeler commended committee members for a healthy discussion. “We don’t have enough of these conversations.” He said he does not believe that most systems are built to suppress. “The reason I brought [the amendment] forward is that across Minnesota, across this country, not everyone is where we are in our appreciation for what we want to do and for what’s important. When you’re not as aware, sometimes you become afraid. This whole conversation has become stigmatized by three letters that continue to rumble through my district: CRT. … What if this became ‘Cool Real Talk’ and we could discuss in the candid way we did here today, in real life, in our communities. That’s what I am looking for. Cool Real Talk.”

Abeler said his amendment is C-work. “Mr. President, I don’t want people to vote on C work,” he said, withdrawing his amendments.

Senator Carla Nelson (GOP–District 24) raised a point of order to remind committee chair Senator Bobby Joe Champion about the Mason’s rule about the use of disorderly words in debate. “You already know, Mr. President, we do not impugn motives. I would like to read the words that I believe are objectionable [made by Sen. Kunesh earlier in the discussion]: “That if voting yes on this amendment, we’re saying it is okay not to teach the real history of our past and that we learn from our mistakes.”

Nelson said, “Those are disorderly words. Those are impugning motives. We have had a great discussion here today, but I do not believe that we can stand nor should we stand for these types of words.”

Champion replied that the rules are about the use of indecent or profane language, not disorderly words, and asked members to always function respectfully.

NEW April: House Omnibus Bill

The House K-12 education finance and policy omnibus bill included an ethnic studies-related investment in the bill that would provide funding to help schools teach social studies standards about Holocaust and genocide studies, ethnic studies, and financial literacy.

Rep. Peggy Bennett (GOP–District 23A) offered an A29 Amendment.

She indicated that ethnic studies — as the understanding of various cultures and peoples, the understanding of the evils of racism in our history — is something everyone agrees should be taught, “but when we start pushing in things that are more toward political ideology, things that talk about white privilege and oppressors and victims, then it becomes something that creates divisiveness between school boards and parents, between administrators and parents. If members of this body want to dictate the specifics of what’s taught in the classroom then they should run for school board.”

Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura (DFL–District 63A) responded to the amendment by referring to page 40 of the bill, which defines ethnic studies: “Ethnic studies analyzes the way in which race and racism have been and continue to be powerful social, cultural, and political forces and the connection of race to the stratification of other groups including stratification based on gender, class, disability, sexuality, religion … and legal status.”

Rep. Walter Hudson (GOP–District 30A) offered a long discussion of his viewpoint as the son of a Black father and white mother. He pointed out that ten years before his birth, the interracial marriage of his parents was prohibited in many states. In contrast, he said, “My generation has had the privilege of growing up in a time and a place that is perhaps the least racist that we have ever seen in the history of the world.”

He said his father was explicitly discriminated against under the law — denied access to public accommodations and certain professions, and being explicitly boxed out of communities because of redlining.

He pointed out that his sons’ backgrounds are Black, Norwegian, and Indigenous: “That literally is Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream … that kids who look different from one another could play and regard each other as sisters and brothers — and we’ve gone beyond that. We’ve made tremendous progress, and I find it extraordinarily strange that there seems to be this desire to drag us backwards. The self-identified progressives regressively trying to convince us that it’s still 1964, that systemic racism makes it incredibly difficult to exist and persist in the United States of America.

He said this bill would teach kids to see each other through a racial lens. “When folks tell me that they don’t see race, it’s not that they’re blind, it’s not that they don’t recognize racial differences, it’s not that they don’t understand history — it’s that they don’t judge a person on account of their identity. … What this bill does is teach them to hate each other. This bill, unamended, is going to create racists.”

Hudson cited the definition of anti-racist in the bill (lines 37.4 and 37.5): “Actively working to identify and eliminate racism in all forms so that so that power and resources are redistributed and shared equitably among racial groups.”

He said his kids and their classmates would not only recognize that people have different stories, histories, and backgrounds, “but you’re going to teach them through curriculum intentionally to take an envious inventory of the power and resources of the kid next to them because they look different. That’s teaching kids to be racist, teaching them to be envious, teaching them to wallow in this pit of grievance and envy and suspicion and hatred.”

Hudson indicate kids would learn how to walk down the street and inventory each person, in a new caste system, that competes about who is more oppressed so they can have a greater share of redistributed power and resources. “This is the mindset of ethnic studies. I have a huge problem with it,” he said. “This is personal. You’re trying to, in essence, tear me apart. Which side of me should I hate and why? Which side of me owes something to the other side? How oppressed am I by my whiter children? How much do they owe me in reparations? How far does this go? How many generations back do we have to look? Is there a political border where it stops?”

Hudson said that ethnic studies focuses attention on disparities and statistics among groups, without acknowledging the cause of disparities. “Outcomes amongst people are the products of potential and choices and behaviors and values and habits and consistency and persistence. Merit,” he said. He said the world view — which could be considered a kind of religion — is that disparities in outcomes make you a victim of racism and bigotry that have to be redistributed in order to even the scoreboard. This is the equivalent, Hudson said, to “declaring a race war.”

“My boys aren’t going to be taught that. I will find a way, if it means sending them to private school, if it means homeschooling,” Hudson said. “Maybe you won’t allow me to do that. Maybe there’s legislation coming down the line that won’t allow me to teach my own kids,. But there’s no way in hell I’m going to have my boys taught that they should be judging other children based on the color of their skin and then seeking to redistribute power and resources on some nebulous claim that they’ve been victimized by virtue of the fact that they’re a different color.”

“It would be laughable presented as a concept,” Hudson concluded. “Presented as legislation, it’s vicious and vile and disgusting. I view it as a direct assault upon me personally, upon this state, and upon our children.”

Ethnic Studies for All passed as part of the Education Policy Omnibus Bill in May 2023.

The ethnic studies debate is one we are interested in talking to people about as we do our “Hometown Values & Vision” statewide listening sessions this summer. Sign up to learn more here.

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1 reply
  1. john wood
    john wood says:

    Thank you very much for sharing such knowledgeable information! This deep dive into the passage of multicultural history education is truly enlightening. It’s fascinating to see how history repeats itself, with opposition to such initiatives mirroring sentiments from a few decades ago. Understanding our multicultural history is essential for fostering inclusivity and a more comprehensive perspective on our collective past. Kudos to the authors for shedding light on this crucial topic and highlighting the parallels with historical opposition. Grateful for the insightful read!


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