An exploration of the physical frontiers that define race in America

What is Ethnic Studies?


You may have noticed that this blog mentions something called “Ethnic Studies” fairly regularly. There is, of course, good reason for this – many of the topics that are covered by SPACExRACE trace their roots back to the seemingly mystical topic of “Ethnic Studies”. So, what does this term mean and where did it come from?

What is Ethnic Studies? | How Was Ethnic Studies Created? | Growth of Ethnic Studies Since Creation | Challenges Faced By Ethnic Studies Since Creation

What is Ethnic Studies?

To give you a sense for what Ethnic Studies is, let me turn to some of the authorities on the subject.

First, a definition from UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies department, which happens to be the first Ethnic Studies department created in the United States: “Ethnic Studies is an interdisciplinary enterprise that starts from the assumption that race and racism have been, and continue to be, profoundly powerful social and cultural forces in American society and in modernity at large.”

And second, a definition from Gary Okihiro, who is the founding director of Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race: “Ethnic studies is the study of power, and its locations and articulations around the axes of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and nation. The field arose historically from the connections made by peoples of color in the U.S. with peoples of the Third World and their struggles against colonization and neo-colonization.”

These, in my mind, are two of the best definitions of the field of Ethnic Studies you can find. The overarching theme here is that the academic discipline of Ethnic Studies came out of a need to study traditional forms of history and culture from the perspective of marginalized peoples, while considering the role that race and racism play in today’s world.

How was Ethnic Studies created?

This is where the story gets more interesting. You see, while the field of Ethnic Studies is fascinating in its own right, the story of its creation is perhaps even more scintillating.

Ethnic Studies was created in the 1960s, inspired by the ideals of “racial harmony” and “participatory democracy” that were championed by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (and were embodied so poignantly by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech).

But in particular, the movement that brought Ethnic Studies into existence was developed entirely by college students. These students felt that their classes were mired with inherent racial discrimination, and that much of their curriculum was irrelevant given the fast-paced societal changes of the late 1960s. They decided that they wanted their curriculum to align with their racial reality, and called for the creation of educational programs that addressed four particular ethnicities: African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, and Native American Studies.

There were two schools in particular that led the charge to Ethnic Studies programs instituted – San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley:

  • San Francisco State students staged the longest campus strike in American history, led by a movement called the Third World Liberation Front. The movement was comprised of students from the school’s Black Students Union, Latin American Students Organization, Filipino-American Students Organization, and El Renacimiento, a Mexican-American student organization. They protested with the goal of expanding the college’s new Black Studies Department (the first of its kind) and creating a School of Ethnic Studies. The protests went on for months before campus administration relented on March 21, 1969 and expanded the Black Studies Department while also establishing a School of Ethnic Studies [Source].
  • UC Berkeley students staged the second-longest campus strike in American history, also led by a Berkeley-based chapter of the Third World Liberation Front. The Berkeley movement sought to establish a College of Third World Studies, with four separate departments for Asian American Studies, African American Studies, Native American Studies, and Chicano Studies. While the Berkeley movement was unable to facilitate the creation of a full-on college for Third World Studies, it did succeed in developing a Department of Ethnic Studies along with the four aforementioned degree programs. These programs were approved by the university on March 4, 1969, making Berkeley the first school in the US to create an Ethnic Studies department [Source].

Growth of Ethnic Studies Since Creation

Once Ethnic Studies programs were established at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley, it did not take long for similar programs to take hold at other universities. Now, more than 40 years after the development of the first Ethnic Studies departments, such programs have become commonplace within the American education system:

  • Ethnic Studies programs are now offered by 55 colleges, including schools like Cornell University, New York University, Yale University, Stanford University, and most of the University of California system.
  • Degree programs at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley have grown to offer more varied undergraduate majors and minors, as well as graduate programs and PhD studies in Ethnic Studies fields.
  • Ethnic Studies programs are starting to be introduced at the high school level, most notably in San Francisco, CA and Tucson, AZ.
  • Tucson’s program has been particularly popular, given the area’s large Mexican-American population. The program has also been extremely successful with this demographic, in that the Mexican-American high school students in the Ethnic Studies program are 64% more likely to pass standardized exit exams than students in other programs.

Ethnic Studies initiatives like the in-depth programs that SFSU and UC Berkeley, as well as the success of Ethnic Studies programs in the high school arena bring validity to the fairly young academic field.

Challenges Faced By Ethnic Studies Since Creation

Yet, the field of Ethnic Studies has also faced substantial criticism since its creation as an academic discipline. Ethnic Studies scholars argue that this criticism is often levied mostly by right-wing critics and is mostly unfounded. But there are voices across the spectrum who have problems with how present-day Ethnic Studies programs operate.

  • Right-wing columnist Mark Goldblatt all but denounces Ethnic Studies in an article for the National Review Online: “The suggestion that “studying” is involved in any of these subjects is laughable; they are quasi-religious advocacy groups whose curricula run the gamut from historical wish fulfillment (the ancient Egyptians were black; the U.S. Constitution was derived from the Iroquois Nation) to political axe grinding (the Israelis are committing genocide against the Palestinians; the U.S. is committing genocide against the people of Cuba).”
  • Meanwhile, Los Angeles Times columnist and race theory expert Gregory Rodriguez also has his doubts about the validity of Ethnic Studies: “Created in the wake of the ethnic pride movement in the early 1970s, many simply never had the same kind of academic oversight as more established and prestigious fields. Those professors generally toiled with little funding in isolated intellectual ghettos. Their scholarship wasn’t tested in the high-stakes, high-profile competition that hones other academics and other fields.”

Other high profile events in the realm of Ethnic Studies have also raised questions about the academic field’s staying power:

  • In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Wade Churchill, a professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, wrote an inflammatory article classifying the attacks as a result of American foreign policy in the Middle East. The article was widely panned in the press, though Churchill did also gain supporters who defended his right to free speech. Ultimately, the University of Colorado, Boulder fired Churchill on the grounds that he had plagiarized some of his academic work, charges that Churchill denied. This led to a protracted lawsuit that ultimately went to the Supreme Court. But ultimately, the whole event raised further questions about the validity of Ethnic Studies as an academic field.
  • In 2009, after facing a $150 million deficit, UC Berkeley hired a consulting firm to help identify cost savings. The resulting program, known as Operation Excellence, called for the elimination of up to 200 staff positions, with several of those coming in the Ethnic Studies department. Students, upset that the program was having its resources cut, staged a 12-day hunger strike in protest. But the protests failed to accomplish their goal, and the incident raised questions regarding the level of respect the University’s administration had for the Ethnic Studies department.
  • In 2010, Arizona state legislature passed House Bill 2281 which, among other things, outlawed any educational courses advocating “ethnic solidarity”. The bill was at least partially aimed at the Ethnic Studies programs developed by Tucson high schools; former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne explicitly targeted the Tucson program for promoting “destructive ethnic chauvinism that the citizens of Tucson should no longer tolerate.” A recent court ruling upheld the recently instituted ban on Tucson’s Ethnic Studies program, potentially bringing other such programs both in-state and nationwide in question.

It is clear from the magnitude and recency of these challenges that the field of Ethnic Studies finds itself at somewhat of a defining moment.

Where does Ethnic Studies go from here?

This is the question that everyone, from University presidents to Ethnic Studies scholars/professors themselves, is trying to answer. And while my focus in the realm of academia is almost entirely different in focus than Ethnic Studies, making me wholly unqualified to answer this question, I think that this blog provides one answer in particular. That is, as vital as the field of Ethnic Studies is in the academic world, it can also be advanced by analysis that is conducted both in-the-moment and on-the-ground using the tools and connectivity provided by modern technology.

Sound compelling? Check out the blog and the rest of the background pages to find out more!