Ethnic Studies emerged from a crucible that is the social justice, civil rights, and Black Power movements. Communities of color struggle to be seen in academic institutions, for spaces that validate and empower their histories, narratives, and lives. This is what made Ethnic Studies so radical. But the same qualities that merit Ethnic Studies are also the same qualities that create antagonism among whites in the United States.
The backlash against Ethnic Studies that appears on the national front is the curriculum revision for K-12 that sanitizes or excludes people of color. One of the largest textbook publishers, McGraw Hill, claims that African Americans who were enslaved and brought to the United States were not slaves. Rather, enslaved Africans were “workers” who sought employment. Labeling African Americans as “workers” does not encompass the experience of chattle slavery that the United States is founded on. The term, “workers,” is a euphemism that obscures the reality that whites exploited and subjugated blacks. This revision of history erases the atrocities that whites and the U.S. government committed, but more particularly, absolves whites from any accountability of genocide against Blacks. This is not only relevant to African Americans, but other communities of color such as Native Americans, Chicanos, and Asian Americans. In grade school textbooks, the experiences of color communities are either marginalized, adulterated, or excluded.
However, it’s not just McGraw Hill, but also politicians who are revising history. Legislatures in Texas and Arizona passed bills that ended the study of Mexican/Chicano Studies programs. Furthermore, the Texas Board of Education banned the teaching of Thomas Jefferson, slavery, and other atrocities against communities of colors. Dr. Don McLeroy, a former member of the Texas Board of Education claims that “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.” History is political and so is the distortion of history.
For the majority of U.S. K-12 students, the American history that they learn are about presidents, patriotism, and ideals such as liberty, democracy, and freedom. For students of color, this type of history negates their experience. Ethnic Studies give students of color the chance to learn about their history, empowering them. Once students are empowered and activated, they will begin to question the racial hierarchy, advocate for their communities, and create radical change. That’s what makes Ethnic Studies so dangerous, the discipline defers to people of color and challenges white supremacy.
The backlash against Ethnic Studies is evident in academic institutions. Not only are many universities lacking Ethnic Studies programs, but existing programs feel the tightened purse strings of the administration and state budget. In particular with the University of Washington, six faculty members are about to retire from the American Ethnic Studies Department. There is no promise that once these faculty members retire, that their positions will be replaced. If anything, it appears that the administration is downsizing the American Ethnic Studies department and waiting for it to be absorbed by another department.
Or worse, it’s possible that the administration will drop the term “Ethnic” to become American Studies, although Ethnic Studies was created first. American studies is a diluted discipline that caters to academia—an institution that is systematically white—and is taught by those who are not affiliated with communities of color or come from ethnic enclaves.
At Washington State University, there are incidents of the suppression of academic freedom against Ethnic Studies faculty members. This past summer, Fox News targeted WSU professor John Streamas and two graduate students in their teaching of Ethnic Studies classes. A Fox News report highlighted an instance in Streamas’ class syllabus, which said that the class will “defer” to the experience of communities of color.
In an attempt to paint the syllabus as an attack on white students, the Fox News report misconstrued the use of the word “defer,” stating: “White students in Professor John Streamas’ ‘Introduction to Multicultural Literature’ class, are expected to ‘defer’ to non-white students, among other community guidelines, if they want to do well in the course.”
As a result, faculty members of WSU’s Ethnic Studies program were attacked with hate mail. In addition, there is no support from the WSU administration or the board of regents, failing to defend academic freedom and yielding to Fox’s accusations.
Academic institutions are a meeting place for people from diverse backgrounds to meet each other. However, it is also a site of conflict. Early this year, UW investigated the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity for calling African Americans “apes” and harassing protesters during a Black Lives Matter march. At the University of Virginia, a black student was beaten when the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Department arrested him. In September, a student organization at UCLA was under fire for a “Kanye Western” party where attendees arrived in black face.
Despite the fact that Ethnic Studies appear in few institutions, there is a need for the discipline as discussions and issues of race is still prevalent. But here’s the irony, the UW acknowledges race as an issue within its campus and nationally, but its support for Ethnic Studies is dismal. When UW President Ana Mari Cauce launched the “Race and Equity Initiative” to cultivate discussions, Ethnic Studies was excluded. Instead, the “Race and Equity Initiative” invites people from outside of the UW and Seattle to discuss race. Once again, the experience of students, staff, and faculty who come from communities of color are marginalized. The “Race and Equity Initiative” connotes that UW does not know how to deal with race and would rather deal with outside experts than remedying the issue at hand.
Diversity at UW is a problem. Only recently has data for Asian and Pacific Islander students been disaggregated. Outreach and recruitment for students of color is still questionable in terms of enrollment and even more so with retention. And let us not forget the elimination of the Southeast Asian recruiter in 2014, where Cauce rebuffed the need for the position with trivial “face validity.” The API community had to step in to reinstate the Southeast Asian recruiter.
The American Ethnic Studies Department at the UW has reached its 30-year anniversary and yet the program is still in danger and impeded from growth. It’s been 30 years and still no graduate program. The only ones who can protect and preserve Ethnic Studies are communities of color. It will be up to us to protect and preserve the department. We are the stakeholders, no other department will tell our narrative. As stewards, we must act with diligence in watching over the administration. Without Ethnic Studies, spaces for students of color are null and so are the opportunities and chances for empowerment.
We are watching the administration. So President Ana Marie Cauce and Dean Robert Stacey, when will we have our Ethnic Studies graduate program? When will we have more faculty for Ethnic Studies? And when will students of color become a priority for the university?