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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Indiana Ethnic Studies Law Is Historic and Significant

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If you spent every day in high school learning about people who don’t share your race, culture or ethnicity, you might be more likely to turn off and tune out. Sound familiar?

All Indiana high schools will be required to offer ethnic and racial studies as an elective course at least once every school year under a new law that goes into effect July 1.

This historic and significant law was the product of more than four years of work by the Indianapolis NAACP branch and our allies, including Kenny Long-Eagle of the Native American Indian Affairs Commission, Wayne J. Hilson, Jr., Senior Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at IUPUI, and many others.

At NAACP, we believe that all students need ethnic studies, not just students of color. Ethnic studies help all students to unlearn watered-down and skewed versions of historical events, says Camille Z. Charles, a professor of sociology, Africana studies, and education at the University of Pennsylvania. “The way that we teach our history and culture … the way that we exclude and minimize certain groups and their experiences, while privileging others, feeds prejudice and negative stereotypes,” Charles told The Atlantic magazine.

A bipartisan set of legislative champions emerged this year to make the new law possible. We are grateful to State Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, who had sponsored this legislation for several years. Passage became possible this year when Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, chair of the Senate Education Committee, asked to co-sponsor the bill. State Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, also signed on and heard the bill for the first time in the House Education Committee.

“Students who learn with a culturally relevant curriculum have role models that have similar experiences to them ethnically,” Behning said in a statement. “We’ve also seen students who are taught relatable, culturally-focused lessons are more likely to have higher attendance rates and even higher grade point averages. I was happy to be a part of the process to give students the opportunity to take a class that relates to their experiences and heritage.”

NAACP Education Chair Garry Holland assembled experienced teams to meet with key legislators and to testify in support of the bill, including high school teachers, university professors and others knowledgeable about ethnic issues.  

Now that high schools are required to offer ethnic studies, we need to make sure those courses are designed and implemented in an authentic and culturally sensitive way. To have an accurate understanding of who we are as a people, we must have a course that starts at the beginning of our histories — not in the middle. NAACP will be working with the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Teachers Association to ensure that ethnic studies courses help counter centuries of misinformation that have fed privilege, prejudice and racial stereotypes in our society.

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