The Future of Ethnic Studies

Photo_6065_landscape_largeGary Y. Okihiro in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

On May 11, 2010, less than a month after signing SB 1070, which many people hold legalizes racial profiling, Arizona's Gov. Jan Brewer signed HB 2281 into law. That law bans schools from teaching classes that are designed for students of a particular ethnic group or that promote resentment, ethnic solidarity, or overthrow of the U.S. government. “Public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people,” it reads.

According to Tom Horne, the state's superintendent of public instruction and one of the bill's principal sponsors, the law was aimed at Chicano studies as taught in the Tucson school system. He called the program “harmful and dysfunctional.” Judy Burns, president of the Tucson Unified School District's governing board, disagreed, declaring that Chicano studies benefits students by promoting critical thinking.

The caricatures and falsehoods implied in the language of HB 2281 and in the arguments in its favor are as old as the field of ethnic studies, of which Chicano studies is a part. And while the Arizona law deals with primary and secondary schools, the issue is very much alive in higher education as well. There, too, ethnic studies, now almost half a century old, is facing threats: from budget cuts that often hit the smallest and newest programs first, from scholars who have transformed ethnic studies into multiculturalism and the study of difference, from critics who say ethnic studies is divisive—and from ethnic studies itself.

In light of the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 90s, the arguments of Arizona's political leaders appear positively old-fashioned. They say that ethnic studies has been created only by and for particular racial groups, and that it promotes hatred of whites and minority-group solidarity. Thus the “harmful” and “dysfunctional” nature of ethnic studies is allegedly that it creates social cleavages where, presumably, none existed before. Those battles were waged and resolved years ago—in favor of multiculturalists. Even former advocates of a single national culture now agree that the United States is and has always been a diverse nation, and that its study, accordingly, must reflect that fact.