Insight News

Feb 08th

Our history: We must fight for ethnic studies

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ethnicstudiesweekThe right wing educational attack in Arizona expressed in the May 11 passage of HB 2281 banning the teaching of Ethnic Studies in all levels of education, k-12 through Higher Education, and new social standards by the Texas State Board of Education, confronts directly the historic struggles of people of color.  These are attacks on our ability to tell our stories, to speak our truths, and to transform the curriculum regarding the history of the United States.  These transformations in US education came from hard-fought struggles.  From the 1968 Third World Strike at San Francisco State College resulting in the establishment of a Third World College, to the  1969 Morrill Hall Take Over by Black students at Minnesota and the struggles for  American Indian and  Chicano Studies on that campus, these fields emerged out of struggle.

Indeed, the Third World Strike at San Francisco State College might be called the borning struggle of contemporary Ethnic Studies in the academy.  “On strike! Shut it down!” resonated on the campus from November 1968 to March 1969.  This five-month strike,  according to Helene Whitson, archivist of the San Francisco State College Strike Collection,  was “longer than any other academic student strike in American higher education history.”

It led to the creation of Third World College, which spawned hundreds of other Black, Chicano, Native and Asian Studies programs in the late 1960s.

The current period demands that the struggle continues since present political realities have everything to do with whether African American, Chicano/a, Native American and Asian Studies will survive. Let us not forget either that the buying and selling of Black bodies, African men, women and children, the seizing of Native, Latino/a and Asian lands and labor  have been  constants in the crafting  of the United States as a nation.  HB 2281 reconnects to this history of exploitation with its passage by attempting to erase the history of people of color in the US.  Not surprisingly, it  has emerged  during a period of intensified racism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant hostilities and practices.  While attention has been rightfully focused on the draconian anti-immigration policies in Arizona, this attack on Ethnic Studies is another key feature in our struggle for educational and social justice in the US and globally.

In short, these are chilling times for peoples of color.  The Ethnic studies programs, departments, centers in this country cannot / must not rest easily.  The Ethnic  Studies project has been named in conservative public discourse as the site of political divisiveness.  Our status  is fragile within the white academy that dominates higher education  and K-12 ,  as institutional decisions  too often embrace this logic.   While those of us in Ethnic Studies  have chastised and railed against conservatives, in fact, we face a neo-liberal reality where liberal and conservative sensibilities merge. The attacks on the conceptual playing fields of  Ethnic Studies  are  matched by the politics of retreat and efforts to dismantle the fields altogether.  

The perennial question for Ethnic Studies programs is why are we here?  How must we connect to our students and wider constituencies? The Ethnic Studies paradigm is rooted in critique of Eurocentrism.  The key actors who founded Ethnic Studies were young men and women of color who refused to accept their educational erasure.  The Ethnic Studies task today remains the decolonization of knowledge, educating and creating  the institutional basis for  sustaining  these fields.   Most importantly, our task is refusing to be brought into the circle of domination that keeps injustice alive.  No doubt, the attack on Ethnic Studies is one expression of an especially difficult set of inequalities in the US:  the dismantling of  living wages,  intensified poverty,  the destruction of welfare state supports which reach the poorest women and children in this country, and the mass incarceration of hundreds of thousands Black and Brown men and women.  This is happening in the context of global economic exploitation.  These retreats from social justice are part and parcel of the same logic that led to HB 2281.  Our struggle continues. 

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