Excerpted From: Lange Luntao and Michelle Wilde Anderson, Ethnic Studies as Anti-Segregation Work: Lessons from Stockton, 123 Columbia Law Review 1507 (June 2023) (68 Footnotes) (Full Document)


LuntaoAndersonDillon Delvo grew up in Stockton, California, in what scholars call a tri-generational family. His father was sixty-three when Delvo was born and decades older than Delvo's mother. As a young boy, Delvo was embarrassed of their age difference, mortified to think that his dad was “a horny old man.” Behind his father's back, Delvo tried to pass him off as his grandfather. But Delvo's views began to change after he left for college in San Francisco. He took his first Asian American studies course, majored in ethnic studies, and completed a thesis on Filipino history in California. The reason tri-generational families were common among Filipino Americans, he learned, was not rooted in a preference for younger women. That pattern reflected the fact that Delvo's father and other Filipino men were legally and practically barred from marrying during their prime years. Filipinos like Delvo's father were recruited to labor in California agriculture at ratios of about fourteen men to every one woman. Those men were then subject to strict anti-miscegenation laws until 1948, which prohibited them from marrying anyone classified as white--a bar that, under California race law at the time, included the Mexican American women who lived in Filipinos' segregated neighborhoods. Strict immigration quotas barred Filipino men from returning to the Philippines to marry and moving back to California. They were also subject to prohibitions on land ownership under so-called Alien Land Laws until 1942, which made the community reliant on cash wages without the ability to build wealth to support a family.

College research and courses taught Delvo another aspect of his father's generation: They were not passive victims. They were leaders in shaping a more ethical California. They had been organizers in the California farmworker movement of the 1960s, one of the most legendary civil and economic rights battles in U.S. history. Delvo learned that the downtown blocks that he grew up calling “Skid Row” used to be a hub for some of this organizing and the home of the largest Filipino community outside of the Philippines. The area's older nickname had been “Little Manila.” Filipinos owned businesses there, pooled their funds to secure dignified burials for their dead, and eventually opened a community center to support civic ties and cultural practices.

None of these facts were discussed during Delvo's childhood or in the Filipino community in Stockton. His network had “melting pot, not salad bowl people,” Delvo says. Look ahead, Delvo was taught. In Stockton public schools, where local and California history started and ended with the Gold Rush, Delvo didn't learn any of this history either. But he got the education he needed just in the nick of time. Before his father died, Delvo had learned his truer family story: His father had to wait until his 50s before he could fall in love, marry, and become a parent; and he had spent his youth organizing for Filipino farmworkers' labor rights alongside the visionary leader Larry Itliong. That context, Delvo said, “allowed me to say thank you to my father before he died.” As Delvo spoke, he paused and swallowed, noticing how that description failed to live up to what he meant to convey. “It was so much deeper than words can express.”

Ethnic studies had given Delvo a truer history of his state and his city, which in turn transformed how he understood his own family. That kind of curriculum is ascendant in America. So too, ethnic studies is under assault in America. In this moment of polarized politics, this Essay reflects on the role of that curriculum in one place, for three people. The place is Stockton--the most diverse city in America and home to a grassroots, DIY ethnic studies movement dating back to the 2000s. Stockton can be a reference point for other school districts and states, including California, which in 2021 became the first U.S. state to require that public high schools teach ethnic studies. Three generations of leaders of ethnic studies curriculum in Stockton--each of whom was shaped personally by their own ethnic studies education--offer a window into what the work has been about.

Our purpose is more modest than to take up the academic or political debate about the merits of the curriculum, or even the choice about whether to standardize it statewide. We simply intend to sit with the more personal vantage points of three people (each a teacher or a student) in one city as a way of regrounding those debates. What follows is a brief racial history of the city of Stockton (in Part I) and a look at the origin and legal context of the city's ethnic studies curriculum (in Part II). Three personal narratives (in Part III) help chronicle the development of the curriculum and bring its impacts to life. In the Conclusion, in light of the ongoing history of segregation and inequality in Stockton, we reflect back on the use of ethnic studies as a court-ordered remedy for de jure and de facto school segregation.

Ethnic studies, these voices convey, is part of how Stockton is healing from more than 150 years of racial segregation in housing and education. In a city (like so many others) where race determined housing and housing determined educational opportunity, Stockton has needed to rescue its students' self-confidence, educational ambition, sense of possibility, and trust in one another. In public high schools that are majority non-white (which is also common that work has meant diversifying the authors, leaders, and historical facts that youth meet during their school years. What segregation long degraded--the sense of self and possibility--ethnic studies has tried to rebuild. Ethnic studies could not integrate Stockton's schools but it could, and did, finally integrate the content of their lessons to reflect the people in the room.

[. . .]

With exceptional levels of racial and ethnic diversity and a student body that was overwhelmingly non-white, Stockton's ethnic studies leaders built a curriculum to celebrate and reflect the city's global heritage, to contextualize local inequality, and to humanize groups separated by barriers of language and other cultural differences. It was integration work in a deeper democratic sense: They were laying the foundation for future trust and cooperation in a diverse city. They were helping to break the intergenerational harms of segregation and racial inequality by freeing individuals to imagine they could draw courage, talent, and role models from all of Stockton's ancestors.

As it happens, the desegregation function of ethnic studies in Stockton is connected to the curriculum's history. In 1974, the Supreme Court in Milliken v. Bradley held that federal courts did not have the power to move school district boundaries to remedy a history of school and housing segregation. Courts could, however, order states and school districts to invest in the life chances of children growing up in segregated, non-white districts. For at least two decades, in school districts from Delaware to Indianapolis, from Minneapolis to Tucson, courts approved remedial desegregation orders that included funding for an ethnic studies curriculum and teacher training. Courts understood this curriculum as a deliberate remedy for segregation--a source of relief from the shame and hopelessness experienced by children of color raised in schools that were both poor and racially segregated. Scholar Richard Delgado captured this idea in plain terms:

For such a child, ethnic history and literature come as a tonic, for they supply reasons for her community's low estate. Nothing is wrong with her people. Their poverty, lack of cultural capital, and statistically low levels of achievement are the product of years of systematic suppression. With the burden of self-blame lifted, the child can dive into school and, learning with a strong heart, resolve to become knowledgeable and an agent for social change.

The harms of segregation, the old cases held, could not be wished away-- especially given that de facto racial segregation among school districts would continue. Majority-minority school districts unable to integrate with suburban, majority-white districts would instead need to draw more youth of color into the fold of education, helping them believe in themselves as agents of change. Describing the role of ethnic studies in desegregation cases, scholar M. Isabel Medina put it this way: “Ethnic identity, like any other group-based identity, historically has been used to denigrate, repress, and target; better, instead, to use it as a cause for celebration and as a way to maximize individual opportunity.” Without the ability to desegregate the districts and children, in other words, courts turned to integrating the curriculum to include the literature, histories, and leaders from communities of color.

In the Stockton Unified School District, ethnic studies was built for similar purposes. It was never about rage or blame against white people. Ethnic studies in Stockton has been about education--learning the history of high school students' families, the backstories of their neighbors' families, the origins of their neighborhood environments, mechanisms of activism and democracy, and the power to create change across generations. It has carried forth Stockton's broader, truer history--not just as a Gold Rush town, but as a jewel of American diversity. “Little Manila and the Filipino American story is one of activism and people fighting for their rights,” says Delvo. “It's panning for gold. That's the real El Dorado. The gold is our history.” The classrooms Delvo helped to build found gold in the voices and writings of Stockton's global ancestors, whether rooted in Mexico or Cambodia, the Black South or the Native tribes of California, or dozens of points beyond.

At “us History” sessions and other youth gatherings in Stockton, former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs sometimes described how he felt in seventh grade when he read a poem by Tupac Shakur about a rose that grew from concrete. It gave him courage to think that he could grow that way, too. Tubbs recited the poem to call forth his city's next generation of roses:

Did you hear about the rose
that grew from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature's laws wrong,
It learned to walk without having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
It learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
When no one else even cared!

Ethnic studies has helped a new generation of Stockton youth imagine that they can grow and thrive despite adversity. In a video celebrating that curriculum with a series of “I am” messages about the speaker's families and the resilience and activism in their diverse communities' histories, a high school student named Nikki Chan cracked a joke--a loving reference to her region's most celebrated crop. “I am,” Chan began before a comic pause followed by laughter, “The asparagus that grew from concrete.” Stockton's future will rely on all of its seedlings breaking through, each one softening the earth for those coming behind.

Director of External Relations, The Education Trust--West.

Larry Kramer Professor of Law, Stanford Law School.