[lg policy] The Future of Ethnic Studies: The field is under assault from without and within

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jul 7 18:07:29 UTC 2010

The Future of Ethnic Studies: The field is under assault from without and within
 Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle Review

By Gary Y. Okihiro

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

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.

Moreover, many sectors of American society, including prominently the
military, businesses, and members of the cultural sphere, know that
diversity is important. That's why a record number of institutions
filed friend-of-the-court briefs, arguing that diversity is a
compelling interest, in the affirmative-action case decided in 2003 by
the U.S. Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger.

Still, Arizona's anxieties over border controls, both within the state
and along its fences with Mexico, reflect a national concern over
solidifying consensus at home while imposing imperial order abroad.
History shows that wars, especially divisive conflicts, promote
homogeneity rather than diversity, and that intolerance of difference
patrols the perimeters of patriotism. The contentious U.S. imperial
wars of the late 19th century in the Caribbean and Pacific were
accompanied and followed by immigration restrictions justified by
eugenics and fears of "swamping" the white race. In our time, we
witness wars abroad and a securing of the homeland against immigrants,
as well as curtailments of our civil liberties.

Related ContentWho Gets to Define Ethnic Studies?
The problem of the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois famously declared, was
the problem of the color line. Race, or, more accurately, the way race
is socially constructed and contested, constituted the pivot for
social relations as imperialism closed the 19th century and the
decolonization struggles of Africa and Asia dominated (from the
perspective of the colonies) the 20th century. The contest between the
ideology that propped up colonialism, on the one hand, and the
commitment to self-determination and the eradication of racism, on the
other, survived the white-against-white aspect of World Wars I and II.

In the words of the philosopher-revolutionary Frantz Fanon, the third
world, conceived in the mid-20th century as Africa, Asia, and Latin
America, was a project by the periphery to solve the core's problems
of imperialism, wars, and systems of bondage. Those goals of
self-determination and anti-racism, which defined the third-world
project, were what the students of the Third World Liberation Front,
at San Francisco State College, had in mind in 1968, when they stated
as their purpose in proposing ethnic studies: "to aid in further
developing politically, economically, and culturally the revolutionary
third-world consciousness of oppressed peoples both on and off

The transnational color line at the 20th century's start narrowed into
nationalist struggles in Africa and Asia by the century's midpoint.
Perhaps as a result, ethnic studies, which began amid postcolonial
nation-building, lost its bearings in the thicket of identity politics
and nationalism. Black power and its permutations, an effective
antidote to the poison of a colonized mentality and a radical
declaration for self-determination, also bore the stain of white
identity politics and programs of national and manly reconstitution.
Patterned on nationalisms abroad and identity politics at home that
promoted homogeneity and punished difference for the sake of
solidarity, U.S. cultural nationalism among peoples of color pursued
that same policing of the borders it struggled against, along with the
nation-state's patriarchy and heterosexuality. As feminists of color
have pointed out, cultural nationalism was saturated with patriarchy
and homophobia, and in that way mimicked and formed alliances with the
dominant order.

Resistance to European imperialism and a discourse of global white
supremacy also prompted the liberating ideas of Négritude (the belief
in a singular black or African identity throughout the diaspora) and
Pan-Africanism (the unity of all African peoples). But like the
"universal" claims to national sovereignty, humanism, and individual
rights that arose from European roots, third-world self-determination,
along with the claims of American Indians and Hawaiians to
sovereignty, floundered in the terrain and language of the first
world. The conundrum involved, in a rephrasing of the
Caribbean-American writer Audre Lorde's well-known formulation: Can
the master's tools dismantle the master's house?

Today ethnic studies looks in a much more disciplined way at power and
how it articulates around the axes of race and ethnicity, gender,
sexuality, class, and nation. That insight was the contribution of the
Combahee River Collective, a black feminist-activist group, which, in
1977, saw that "the major systems of oppression are interlocking." For
a new generation of ethnic-studies scholars, the focus is not just—or
even foremost—on the relations between white and nonwhite people but
on relations among peoples of color and the multiple dimensions of
race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation.

While postcolonialism's heterogeneity and fluidity can illuminate
power and its effects—for example, showing its contingent and
malleable nature—it can also, however, deny the realities of social
structures and human experience, and absolve global citizens from
local responsibility and action. Further, postcolonialism's
universalism and disregard of borders resonate with the rise of global
capitalism—and the global university—and its paralyzing indeterminacy.

Ethnic-studies practitioners, accordingly, bear some of the
responsibility for the field's infirmities. Despite resurgent student
interest and hostile critiques like those in Arizona, we have failed
to articulate the compelling intellectual and social necessity of our
field for any educated person. Ethnic studies is not identity
politics, multiculturalism, or an intellectual form of promoting
affirmative action for people of color. Those detours trivialize the
political claims of the discipline, reducing the analysis of power
relations and their interventions to cultural celebrations and lessons
in cultural competence.

But the greatest threat to the field, it appears to me, arises not
from willful racists or inarticulate ethnic-studies scholars, but from
liberals who have derailed the field's radical challenges into a
celebration of cultural diversity and multiculturalism, or into a
transnational project that loses specificity and, some might add,
responsibility even as it attempts to grapple with the ideas and
realities of the present moment. No longer centrally at stake are the
nation-state and its particular history and formations of conquest and
extermination, land appropriation and labor exploitation, regimes of
inclusion and exclusion, and expansion and imperialism. Deliberately
blunted is the political edge of ethnic studies, with its focus on
power and demands for a more inclusive and just republic (and
university) through a dismantling of hierarchies of race, gender,
sexuality, class, and nation.

Here at Columbia University, what was once ethnic studies is being
transformed, in the name of "globalization" and the study of
"difference," into a field of race and ethnicity devoid of a coherent
literary tradition, methodology and theory, and even practitioners.
Thus the university's Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race is
proposing a new major, a generic and global study of ethnicity and
race, to replace the present comparative ethnic-studies major.
Columbia has also announced a research initiative to combine the work
of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, the Center for the
Study of Ethnicity and Race, the Institute for Research in
African-American Studies, and the Institute for Comparative Literature
and Society at Columbia, as well as the Barnard Center for Research on
Women. It is to be called the Center for the Critical Analysis of
Social Difference.

By contrast, I believe that ethnic studies, while necessarily global,
should be anchored within the United States. Its capacious subject
matter should be "social formation," which Marxist writings posit as
the form and stage of society, both its structure and changes over
time. For ethnic studies, the social structure is conceived and
cultivated by power and the relations among race and ethnicity,
gender, sexuality, class, and nation as discrepant and intersecting

Social formation attends to the multiplicity of forces at work in the
positions and exercises of power. It demands a complexity in our
thinking and politics about the overlap and conflict of social
categories. Individual subjectivities and social relations are never
solitary or fixed; we can see ourselves simultaneously as people of
color, women, and members of the working class, and under capitalism
our class interests might clash with our privileges of citizenship.

In the past few years, students have been protesting a steady stream
of cuts in ethnic-studies departments, centers, and programs. At the
same time, it is not inconsequential that we face a present moment of
danger, of U.S. imperial wars abroad and denial of civil liberties at
home, of an allied war being waged against migrants in the name of
sovereign borders and against freedoms of speech and thought and
religion. At risk is not merely ethnic studies, but also our

Gary Y. Okihiro is a professor of international and public affairs at
Columbia University, where he was founding director of the Center for
the Study of Ethnicity and Race.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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