Ethnic studies

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Ethnic Studies in the United States, is the interdisciplinary study of racialized peoples in the world in relation to ethnicity. It evolved in the second half of the 20th century partly in response to charges that traditional disciplines such as anthropology, history, English, ethnology, Asian Studies, and orientalism were allegedly imbued with an inherently eurocentric perspective. Ethnic Studies was created to teach the stories, histories, struggles and triumphs of people of color on their own terms.


In the United States, the field of Ethnic Studies evolved out of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which saw growing self-awareness and radicalization of people of color such as African-Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and American Indians. Ethnic Studies departments were established on many campuses and grew to encompass African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Raza Studies, Chicano Studies, and Native American Studies.

The first strike for Ethnic Studies occurred in 1968, led by the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a joint effort of the Black Student Union, Latin American Students Organization, Asian American Political Alliance, Filipino American Collegiate Endeavor, and Native American Students Union at San Francisco State University it was the longest student strike in the nation's history, and resulted in the establishment of a School of Ethnic Studies, when President S.I. Hayakawa ended the strike by taking a hardline approach, appointed Dr. James Hirabayashi the first dean of the School (now College) of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University,[1] and increased recruiting and admissions of students of color in response to the strike's demands. In 1972, The National Association for Ethnic Studies was founded to foster interdisciplinary discussions for scholars and activists concerned with the national and international dimensions of ethnicity.

The University of California at Berkeley minority students united under their own Third World Liberation Front,the TWLF, and initiated the second longest student strike in the history of this country on January 22, 1969. The groups involved were the Mexican American Student Confederation, Asian American Political Alliance, African American Student Union, and the Native Americans. The four co-Chairman's of the TWLF were Ysidro Macias, Richard Aoki, Charlie Brown, and LaNada Means. This strike at Berkeley was even more violent than the San Francisco State strike, in that more than five police departments, the California Highway Patrol, Alameda County Deputies, and finally, the California National Guard were ordered onto the Berkeley campus by Ronald Reagan in the effort to quash the strike. The excessive use of police force has been cited with promoting the strike by the alienation of non-striking students and faculty, who protested the continual presence of police presence on the Berkeley campus. The faculty union voted to join the strike on March 2, and two days later the Academic Senate called on the administration to grant an interim Department of Ethnic Studies. On March 7, 1969, President Hitch authorized the establishment of the first Ethnic Studies Department in the country, followed by the establishment of the nation's first College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University on March 20, 1969.

Courses in Ethnic Studies tried to address the criticism that the role of Asian Americans, Blacks, Mexicans, Latinos and Native Americans in American history was undervalued and ignored because of Euro-centric bias. Ethnic Studies also often encompasses issues of gender, class, and sexuality. There are now hundreds of African American, Asian American, and Chicano/Latino Studies departments in the US, approximately fifty Native American Studies departments, and a small number of comparative Ethnic Studies programs. Ethnic Studies as an institutional discipline varies by location. For instance, whereas the Ethnic Studies Department at UC Berkeley comprises separate "core group" departments, the department at UC San Diego does not do so. [2]

While early Ethnic Studies scholarship focused on the previously repressed histories and identities of various racialized groups within the context of the U.S., over time the field of study has expanded to encompass transnationalism, comparative race Studies and postmodernist/poststructuralist critiques. While pioneering thinkers relied on frameworks, theories and methodologies such as those found in the allied fields of sociology, history, literature and film, scholars in the field today utilize multidisciplinary as well as comparative perspectives, increasingly within an international or transnational context. Most recently, "whiteness" studies has been included as a popular site of inquiry in what is a traditionally academic field for studying the racial formation of communities of color. Instead of including whites as another additive component to the Ethnic Studies, Whiteness studies has instead focused on how the political and juridical category of white has been constructed and protected in relation to racial "others." Many scholars contend that while racism is a central subject to examine, one must pay attention to and interrogate the social, political and economic conditions which shaped and created race in the first place. Today, what constitutes Ethnic Studies work is fluid as scholars have taken up the study of race and ethnicity across almost all disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. In general, an "Ethnic Studies approach" is loosely defined as any approach that emphasizes the cross-relational and intersectional study of different groups.


Ethnic Studies has always been opposed by different elements. Proponents of Ethnic Studies feel that this is a reactionary movement from the right. They point out the rise of the conservative movement in the United States during the 1990s which saw the discipline come increasingly under attack. For proponents, the backlash is characterized as an attempt to preserve "traditional values" of Western culture, symbolized by the United States. For some critics, this actually is a slant by the proponents to disparage criticism by false association to right wing ideology. They have no objection about African, Latino or Native American culture being legitimate topics of academic research. What they object to is the current state of Ethnic Studies which they see as characterized by excessive left wing political ideology, postmodernist relativism which, in their view, greatly undermined the scholarly validity of the research. However, Ethnic Studies is accused of promoting "racial separatism", "linguistic isolation" and "racial preference".[2] In addition, Ethnic Studies is attacked for reinforcing stereotypes and offering simplistic explanations for the very deep fissures among different cultural groups in this country.

In 2005, a professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado at Boulder, Ward Churchill, came under severe fire for an essay he had written about the September 11, 2001 attacks, "On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," in which he claimed that the September 11 attacks were a natural and unavoidable consequence of what he views as unlawful US policy, and he referred to the "technocratic corps" working in the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns.".[3] Conservative commentators used the Churchill affair to attack Ethnic studies departments as enclaves of "anti-Americanism" which promote the idea of ethnic groups as "victims" in US society, and not places where serious scholarship is done. "The epistemological nadir of any university is found in the wacky world of ethnic and gender studies: black studies, Africana studies, Chicano studies, Latino studies, Puerto Rican studies, Middle Eastern studies, Native American studies, women's studies, gay and lesbian studies, et al.," wrote columnist Mark Goldblatt in the February 9 online edition of the conservative magazine National Review. "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)."[4]

In the face of such attacks, Ethnic Studies scholars are now faced with having to defend the field. In the media, this takes form of characterising the attack as right wing reactionary movement. For example, Orin Starn, a cultural anthropologist and specialist in Native American Studies at Duke University, says: "The United States is a very diverse country, and an advocate would say we teach kids to understand multiculturalism and diversity, and these are tools that can be used in law, government, business and teaching, which are fields graduates go into. It promotes thinking about diversity, globalization, how we do business and how we work with nonprofits."[5]

In reaction to criticisms that Ethnic Studies academics undermine the study of a unified American history and culture or that the charge that they simply a "colored" version of American Studies, defenders point out that Ethnic Studies comes out of the historically repressed and denied presence of groups within the U.S. knowledge-production, literature and epistemology. Efforts to merge Ethnic Studies with American Studies has been meet with fierce opposition as was the case at UC Berkeley. While the field is already decades old, the ongoing creation of new Ethnic Studies departments is fraught with controversy. Administrators at Columbia University attempted to placate student protests for the creation Ethnic Studies Department in 1996 by offering American Studies as a compromise.[6]

Arizona Ban[edit]

On May 11, 2010 Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed House Bill 2281 (also known as HB 2281 and A.R.S. §15–112), which prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that

  1. Promotes the overthrow of the Federal or state government or the Constitution
  2. Promotes resentment toward any race or class (e.g. racism and classism)
  3. Advocates ethnic solidarity instead of being individuals
  4. Are designed for a certain ethnicity

But the law must still allow:

  1. Native American classes to comply with federal law
  2. Grouping of classes based on academic performance
  3. Classes about the history of an ethnic group open to all students
  4. Classes discussing controversial history[7]

Coming off the heels of SB 1070, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne was adamant about cutting Mexican-American Studies in the Tucson Unified School District. He devised HB 2281 under the belief that the program was teaching "destructive ethnic chauvinism and that Mexican American students are oppressed." [8] In January 2011, Horne reported TUSD to be out of compliance with the law. In June of that year, the Arizona Education Department paid $110,000 to perform an audit on the TUSD's program, which reported "no observable evidence was present to suggest that any classroom within the Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law." [9] John Huppenthal (elected Superintendent as Horne became Attorney General) ordered the audit as part of his campaign promise to "Stop La Raza", but when the audit contradicted his own personal findings of noncompliance, he discredited it. Despite a formal appeal issued on June 22, 2011 by TUSD to Huppenthal, Judge Lewis Kowal backed the Superintendent's decision and ruled the district out of compliance in December, 2011.[10] On January 10, 2012 the TUSD board voted to cut the program after Huppenthal threatened to withhold 10% of the district's annual funding. Numerous books related to the Mexican-American Studies program were found in violation of the law and have been stored in district storehouses, including Shakespeare's The Tempest, Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Bill Bigelow's "Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years.[11]

Supporters of MAS see HB 2281 as another attack on the Hispanic population of Arizona. This is due partly to the fact that none of the other three Ethnic Studies programs were cut. A 2011 documentary, Precious Knowledge directed by Ari Palos and produced by Eren McGinnis for Dos Vatos Productions, argues that while 48% of Hispanic students drop out, TUSD's program had become a model of national success, with 93% of enrolled students graduating and 85% going on to college.[12] The film shows a 165-mile community run from Tucson to Phoenix in protest of the state's decision, as well as student-led marches and stand-ins. In one instance, students overtook a board meeting by chaining themselves to the board members' chairs.[13] A student protest group, UNIDOS (United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies), has remained active speaking out before legislators and school board members on behalf of the program.[14] In a separate case, two students and 11 teachers sued the state, contending that the law is unconstitutional. The teachers, however, have been denied standing in the lawsuit as public employees.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1][dead link]
  2. ^[dead link]
  3. ^ Charlie Brennan (February 3, 2005). "College journalist touched off firestorm". Rocky Mountain News. 
  4. ^ Goldblatt, Mark (February 9, 2005). "". Retrieved October 17, 2011. 
  5. ^ ",1413,36~53~2722200,00.html". Denver Post. Retrieved October 17, 2011. 
  6. ^ "". New York Times. April 19, 1996. Retrieved October 17, 2011. 
  7. ^ "Arizona House Bill 2281 (2010)" (PDF). Retrieved October 17, 2011. 
  8. ^ Tom Horne, "An Open Letter to Citizens of Tucson", June 2007
  9. ^ "Tucson ethnic-studies program not illegal, audit says" The Arizona Republic, June 16, 2011
  10. ^ Billeaud, Jacques. "Ariz schools' ethnic studies program ruled illegal". Associated Press. Retrieved December 30, 2011. 
  11. ^ "Who's afraid of 'The Tempest'?" "Salon", January 13, 2012
  12. ^ "Precious Knowledge" Dos Vatos Films, 2011
  13. ^ "Students Protest Ethnic Studies Curriculum Change", April 27, 2011
  14. ^ "Tucson School Board Eliminates Mexican American Studies Program" New York Times Student Journalism Institute, January 12, 2012
  15. ^ "Students, Not Teachers, Can Fight Ban on Ethnic Studies" Courthouse News Service, January 11, 2012

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