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The Right to Ethnic Studies in Higher Education

Especially given the demographics, asks Alvaro Huerta, why shouldn't colleges require students to learn about others' histories, struggles and successes in this country?

May 15, 2020
 
 

It’s racist to oppose ethnic studies in higher education and K-12.

Now that I have your attention, allow me to explain. In California, while we’ve done a relatively good job of enforcing home isolation (for those with homes) and social distancing during this crisis, a debate is ongoing in the state Legislature and higher education about whether or not to mandate an ethnic studies course for undergraduates. More specifically, a state bill, Assembly Bill 1460, introduced by Assembly Member Shirley Nash Weber and co-authored by other members, is pending. If passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, it would make the 23 California State University campuses require all students to take one course of three units in ethnic studies to graduate. (The CSU represents the “nation’s largest four-year public university system.”) As approved by the CSU Board of Trustees in early 2013, CSU students need a minimum of 120 semester units to graduate for most bachelor’s degrees. Hence, if a student is required to take one three-unit ethnic studies course, it only represents 2.5 percent of the total to graduate.

“So why is it racist to oppose ethnic studies, Dr. Huerta?” I’m glad you asked. To answer this question, let’s consider the demographic composition of CSU students. In fall 2018, the CSU system enrolled 481,210 students, including postbaccalaureate and graduate students, of which only 110,570, or 23 percent, were white. That means that the majority, or 77 percent, of the university system’s students were nonwhite. While 76,386 students were Asian/Pacific Islanders, African Americans represented 19,301, or 4 percent, of the student body. And Latinas/os were the largest ethnic/racial group, consisting of 199,521 students, or 41.5 percent, of the total. Moreover, 21 of the 23 campuses meet the criteria for Hispanic-serving institutions. Thus, why would the opponents of ethnic studies deny a majority of racialized (or “otherized”) CSU students the opportunity to learn about their histories, struggles and successes in this country with its dark past and dark present?

Speaking of America’s dark past, in terms of structural racism in higher education, the struggle for ethnic studies dates back to the late 1960s. In fact, student organizers and others at a CSU campus, San Francisco State University, played a key role in demanding and establishing ethnic studies not only in California, but also throughout the nation. Founded in fall of 1969, SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies’ website sheds light on this important movement:

In 1968 and 1969, the Black Student Union, Third World Liberation Front, select staff and faculty, and members from the larger Bay Area community organized and [led] a series of actions against systematic discrimination. Protestors spoke out against lack of access, misrepresentation, and the overall neglect of indigenous peoples and people of color within the university's curriculum and programs. Their specific demands included the establishment of four departments: American Indian Studies, Asian American Studies, Black Studies, and La Raza Studies within a College of Ethnic Studies. These demands reflected a respect for the diverse intellectual traditions and cultural expressions of scholars, activists, and artists of color and indigenous people throughout the United States.

It took 50 years for another CSU campus, California State University at Los Angeles, to follow in SFSU’s footsteps to establish a College of Ethnic Studies, going beyond a department or series of ethnic studies courses. Its mission statement also shines a bright light on the importance of ethnic studies:

The College of Ethnic Studies is the first such college to be established at a university in the U.S. in 50 years. We will develop leaders who engage in rigorous, self-reflexive study that motivates critical engagement, self-determination and decolonial understandings of the world. The college provides an interdisciplinary intellectual space that centers the histories, traditions, cultures, experiences, struggles and accomplishments of diasporic communities of color, making connections between the local and transnational.

As an interdisciplinary scholarly field, ethnic studies is about self-respect and self-determination. It’s about racialized groups -- workers, students, scholars, organizers and others -- refusing to be viewed or gazed upon from a Eurocentric paradigm as inferior or less than. It’s about rejecting the scholarly practice of being objects of studies. Instead, we demand to be the subjects in this equation. As subjects, we don’t need outsiders writing our stories, narrating our histories and planning our futures.

As subjects, we, too, create knowledge!

Today, as we confront the dire consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially given the inept and negligent federal response from the White House and GOP-controlled Senate, racialized/marginalized communities are suffering disproportionately in terms of rates of infections and deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes Latinas/os, African Americans and Native Americans, among others. It especially includes immigrants; the Trump administration is wreaking havoc among los de abajo (those on the bottom) with its draconian and xenophobic policies. Moreover, we are witnessing an increase in racism and hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in this country due to COVID-19, which is fueled in large measure by President Donald Trump and his Republican lackeys referring to it as the “Chinese virus.”

¡Ya basta!

The impacts of COVID-19 pandemic clearly and strongly demonstrate the need for ethnic studies. But as those of us who support such studies make the case for them, we must also reject being tokenized. It will not be progress if a minority of brown scholars (and other racialized groups) “make it,” while the majority of brown and black kids in America’s barrios and ghettos are denied quality K-12 schools and equal access to higher education, limiting their opportunities to get ahead. And let’s not forget about Native Americans on reservations and beyond.

“College isn’t for everyone!” Yeah, I’ve heard that line before while growing up on the mean streets of East Los Angeles and pursuing higher education. Now that I’m a Chicano scholar-activist and survivor of white studies with undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, I often contemplate if white students from privileged backgrounds are also told (or conditioned to believe) this anticollege message that’s primarily aimed at racialized and working-class groups. It’s yet one more reason why I continue to say, “Viva ethnic studies!”

Bio

Alvaro Huerta holds a joint faculty appointment in urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University. Among other scholarly publications, he’s the author of Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm and Defending Latina/o Immigrant Communities: The Xenophobic Era of Trump and Beyond. He holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. in urban planning and a B.A. in history from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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