Ethnic Studies is Broadening, Arizona Be Damned

The academic field's complex growth mirrors race relations today--which is at least part of why it scares Tom Horne so much.

By Daisy Hernandez Jun 03, 2010

When Arizona School Superintendent Tom Horne took to the airwaves last month lauding the state’s new ban on ethnic studies programs in public schools, it reminded me of the white girl who came up to me after a college talk to find out why the Black girls at her school didn’t like her.

"I want to be friends with them," she told me, genuinely distressed.

What bothered her is what’s frustrating Horne about ethnic studies: a white person isn’t the center of the conversation.

Although Horne could kick back and say, "I’m just one part of American history not the whole enchilada," he’s instead telling anyone who will hear that ethnic studies is promoting resentment against whites. From there, it’s a jump, skip, hop and twirl as the new Arizona law states to classes "that promote the overthrow of the U.S. Government."

While ethnic studies as an academic field has faced an uphill battle since it began with in 1969 with a student strike, HB 2881, as the Arizona law is known, marks perhaps the first time that a legislative body has put pen to paper to ban one of its programs. To be clear, the law doesn’t call ethnic studies by its name. It cites instead public school programs that advocate ethnic solidarity and mandates state education officials to withhold 10 percent in funding from schools that have such programs. The law goes into effect at the end of the year.

On cable shows and oped pages, Horne has been joined by teachers, pundits and others to decry the work of ethnic studies–leaving folks like me who have a vague memory of one class on Latino pop culture to wonder where ethnic studies is today.

Interviews with several professors in the field suggest that ethnic studies is (surprise, surprise) bearing the markings of race relations today: a widespread acceptance that black and brown experiences are important coupled with the complaint that we don’t need to focus on race and the rise of people of color to prominent positions juxtaposed with the ongoing need to organize and make demands on school systems.  

And while Arizonians are desperate for a border–both a real one and an intellectual one–ethnic studies scholars are turning to comparative studies, looking at how experiences of ethnicity here in the U.S. compare to those abroad.

Larry Estrada, who directs the American Cultural Studies program at Western Washington University, is researching what he calls "Haitian statelessness" in the Dominican Republic and comparing it to the experiences of Mexican immigrants in the United States. "Haitians are really the Mexicans in the Dominican Republic," he says, citing the way in which Haitians provide labor and face racial stereotyping.

The same is true of Nigerians in France. "If you look at construction in France it’s all being mostly staffed by Nigerians in France. All those similarities are striking scholars. It behooves us to understand the dynamics of those relationships," Estrada says.

The explosion of the Internet also means that academics abroad have been getting more access to the scholarship being produced here. At one conference, Estrada met four Turkish women who had never been to the U.S. but had studied Chicana literature extensively. "They were applying a lot of the social theory to the situation of Turkish women," he says.

This new interest from abroad has made for some ironic twists.

Spain, for example, has long been criticized in the Chicano community for its historical role as an imperial power. Now though scholars in Spain are producing some of the more exciting work on Chicano literature, says Maythee Rojas, president of National Association of Ethnic Studies.

Academics abroad are also finding that the work of ethnic studies here helps them to understand the new reality of immigration in their own countries.

"These countries are experiencing a huge influx of immigrants," says Rojas. In Spain, for example, a sponsorship program to increase labor has led to the blooming of an Ecuadorian community there. The points of contact between cultures is an obvious topic of study for scholars and "American ethnic studies has already paved the way," Rojas says.

If the U.S. can offer some leadership in the field, it also means that ethnic studies today is much more professionalized and institutionalized than its founders perhaps anticipated.

"When ethnic studies was developed, it was meant to be an engine to produce organic intellectuals," notes Alberto Ledesma, a writer and graduate of Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies doctoral program. Three generations later, the main work being produced is theory, which Ledesma says is critical for understanding race and ethnicity, but it’s definitely a change from 1969 when students went on strike at San Francisco State College and at UC Berkeley calling for professors of color to be hired and for classes to be taught about the experiences of communities of color.

Fast forward from 1969 through 40 years of researching, writing, organizing, and teaching, and entire bookstores can now be filled with pages dissecting everything from the erotic in Chicana novels to how public assistance defines cultural citizenship. Where there was one book about braceros by the now famous Chicano studies scholar Rudy Acuña, there’s now 30, says Rojas.

The field today is in its third phase of development, according to Ron Scapp, the founding director of the graduate program in urban and multicultural education at the College of Mt. St. Vincent in the Bronx.

"For people who were the first wave of ethnic studies, ethnic studies is ‘I am somebody and Chicano literature is valued’," says Scapp. "The next wave is a lot of that but with ‘I want to forge an academic career and I want to acknowledge my roots.’ And then there’s a third wave of ‘I’m part of this larger interdisciplinary study of the complexities of the culture, politics and history that is America."

What began as a small field mainly focused on race, ethnicity and class has expanded to include sexuality and gender with its own cadre of scholars, theories and publications. And in the last 20 years, these have been integrated into the so-called traditional fields of study like history and sociology, leading some academics to question the need for ethnic studies as a separate entity.

Acuña, whose book Occupied America made national headlines when it came under attack by Horne, says there’s a reason to be concerned about ethnic studies being consumed by other departments.

"People want them in traditional departments so they can control them, so they can refuse to hire Mexicans," he says. Three-quarters of the departments at Cal State Northridge in California, he says, don’t have professors of Mexican heritage even though more than a third of the student body is Latino.

Another drawback is that eventually a traditional discipline like English might start looking at Black women’s fiction, for example, as just fiction divorced from a political reality, says Scapp.

While ethnic studies may be professionalized at the graduate level, at the high school level it’s a bit more 1969ish.

In February, the San Francisco Board of Education agreed to a pilot program that will include ethnic studies courses in its high school curriculum. That agreement though came about because students collected signatures for the program and testified before board members that they wanted more than Eurocentric history classes. In an nod of how much has changed in the last 40 years, a student brought up her rights to an ethnic studies education.  The San Francisco Chronicle reported a 10th-grader Brenda Juarez testifying that "Our parents are paying taxes. They have to give us this now. Not next year, now."

Between those fiery high schoolers and the professionalized graduates, the field of ethnic studies still remains the first place that undergraduates are examining their ideas about race.  

Every semester, Rojas walks into a classroom where white students wonder if a class focused on Chicana literature has anything to do with them. After years of taking classes about white authors, it’s a change for the students. "I tell them: ‘You’re not the center of this but you’re so important to this discussion," Rojas says.

Ultimately it’s this notion–you’re important but not the center–that infuriates Horne so much. It’s also what spurs the current anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and across the country, giving ethnic studies students and professors much to study and teach about.