Ethnic Studies on its 40th Birthday

Nelson Maldonado-Torres

"We find hate and revolution is being taught in their books…"
"We found a denigration and disparagement of American values and a subversion of our history."

Laura Leighton, Tucson resident, commenting about books taught in a Raza Studies Program in Arizona (April 2008).

The 40-year anniversary of Ethnic Studies is approaching, and this provides a motivation to think about the past, present, and future of the field. Any reflection about what Ethnic Studies is and should be must be grounded in an account of its peculiar origin and mission. It should begin with the recognition that Ethnic Studies is an exceptional intellectual space and institutional formation in the Western Academy that to a large extent became institutionalized in spite of, instead of because of, mainstream work done in the traditional letters and sciences—including English, Sociology, and Area Studies to name only some of the more obviously connected with Ethnic Studies.

Exhibits40th Anniversary Dinner exhibits.

Just like Black Studies and Women's Studies, Ethnic Studies became an official part of academia because of social and political pressures arising from social movements of marginalized and excluded peoples. This is one reason why when reflecting about Ethnic Studies, it is important to have Black Studies (and African American and Africana Studies) as well as Women's Studies (and Gender and Women's Studies) very much in mind. They arguably have a unique and special affinity.

Black Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Women's Studies emerged in 1968, 1969, and 1970, respectively. They are all children of a very important moment in twentieth century history: a historical moment that unfortunately has been disavowed by multiple circles, particularly, but not only, conservative ones, for the last forty years. Indeed, these fields have grown in a very contested and hostile territory. Leaders in these areas are often said to have no rigor, and are portrayed as representatives of the worst kind of sectarian identity politics. They and the social movements that led to the creation of the spaces that they occupy today are often referred to as excessive and obsolete: skeletons of an old era that the nation and contemporary scholarship in the traditional departments have fundamentally overcome or superseded.

The traditional accusations of Black Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Women's Studies are remerging very strongly today in what has become an age of imprisonment, trafficking of women and "feminicides," and war against immigration and "terror," among other long-standing dehumanizing practices such as the denial of sovereignty to indigenous peoples and the implementation of neocolonial conditions of dependency throughout the globe. For example, a propos of disciplinary actions against Ethnic Studies professor Ward Churchill, who went through what many consider an unfair review process after the conservative media focused on comments that he made in the context of 9/11, a columnist in the Los Angeles Times referred to Ethnic Studies faculty in general as the worst offenders in academia, "craven emotional warriors in the arena of identity politics," whose "scholarship wasn't tested in the highstakes, high profile competition that hones other academic and fields." They and others who find a place in comparative literature and gender studies departments and programs are "academia's hidden crackpots."[1] More recently, in April 2008, a Raza Studies program in Arizona was accused of selecting books for its classes that allegedly promote hate and revolution, as well as denigrate "American values" and subvert "our history." Arizona politicians quickly responded with a legislation that seeks to take state funding away from courses that "denigrate American values and the teachings of Western civilization."[2] The legislation also targets student groups and associations that use race or ethnicity as a criteria for their organization (such as MEChA, and others).

It is often said that "Ethnic Studies are well, but ethnic communities are doing badly." Instead, I suggest that their fate is intimately related, and that neither one nor the other is doing very well today. They are both communities at risk that face old and new forms of discrimination by emerging uncritical patriotisms and liberal discourses in a moment of war, rapid demographic change, and economic recession.

The 40-year anniversaries of Black Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Women's Studies, their common origin in social movements, and the common situation in which they find themselves today, offer an opportunity to pay more attention to the linkages and initiatives for contact and cross-fertilization that have existed throughout their history. These linkages have largely been prompted by women of color, who often occupy and challenge more than one of these spaces at the same time, and by many scholars who have done serious work in more than one area of scholarship in ethnic studies. Instead of considering these initiatives as the exception, it is possible to build from them to continue the path of unfinished decolonization, deracialization, and depatriarchalization of knowledge and society, which is undoubtedly what appears so threatening to many today.

Douglas DanielsDouglas Daniels, TWLF strike participant and Professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara, speaking at the 40th Anniversary Dinner.

Further strengthening the linkages among African American Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Gender and Women's Studies can have a productive effect in scholarship, teaching, and the overall standing of these fields in society and academia. The recent move of the Department of Gender and Women's Studies to Barrows Hall, next to African American Studies and one floor above the Ethnic Studies Department makes this path probably more provocative and feasible than ever before. The presence of the Center for Race and Gender, the Beatrice Bain Research Group, and the Center for the Study of Sexual Culture, next to African American Studies and Gender and Women's Studies also promises to help facilitate the links even more. The celebration of our respective anniversaries in the next few years (including the 10 year anniversary of the Center for Race and Gender) can very well become the motivation for shared activities, new collaborations, and the invention of yet new paradigms that will maximize our potential to achieve our respective and very much related missions.

This is an excerpt from a work in progress.

  1. Gregory Rodriguez, “Academia’s Hidden Crackpots,” in Los Angeles Times (July 30th, 2007). [consulted on May 9, 2008].
  2. Howard Fischer, “Measure Backs ‘American Values’ in State Schools,” in East Valley Tribune (April 16, 2008). [consulted on May 9, 2008].


Ethnic Studies Department
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