Advocates Say Ethnic Studies Misunderstood, Needlessly Under Fire - Higher Education
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Advocates Say Ethnic Studies Misunderstood, Needlessly Under Fire

by Tina A. Brown

Ron Scapp, president of the National Association for Ethnic Studies, exited the airplane headed to his annual board meeting last Thursday in Fort Collins, Colo., ready to galvanize ethnic studies program chairs from colleges across the country.

He said he felt a sense of urgency because there were too many headlines in the news recently that might have detrimental consequences for ethnic studies programs across the board.

To outsiders, a federal judge’s recent decision upholding aspects of a controversial Arizona law that took aim at the Mexican-American curriculum taught at the Tucson Unified School District has nothing to do with the association or college-based ethnic studies programs.

Judge A. Wallace Tashima’s decision confirmed that it was OK for Arizona to ban a curriculum that promotes the overthrow of the U.S. government, promotes racial or class resentment and advocates for ethnic solidarity rather than the treatment of students as individuals in a public school setting.

For Scapp, the judge’s ruling can be viewed as an attack on ethnic studies because, he said, it is based upon a flawed definition that “undermines American values. Ethnic studies embrace the full gamut of American history,” Scapp said.

If left uncorrected, he said, that interpretation might springboard into problems for ethnic studies programs. “They’ve always been vulnerable because of the way they started.”

The programs are particularly at risk now because of budget restraints. Adversarial attitudes in some parts of the country toward academic programs that don’t automatically equal jobs for graduating college students does not help either, Scapp said.

Scapp said he felt compelled to clearly define ethnic studies for the association. Anyone with beliefs that ethnic studies taught in colleges are subversive to America or favor a particular group, both tenets in the Arizona law, are wrong, he said.

Scapp said the board affirmed a longstanding definition of ethnic studies as an academic discipline. It says, in part: “Ethnic studies are an honest and rigorous investigation into the history of the United States. It explores the history of oppression and the successful relationship of race, ethnicity, class and gender and various ways diverse people have coped and survived and thrived in a nation that is still developing its identity.”

Scapp said the association decided last week to distribute a nationwide survey to learn specifics about the status of some 40 ethnic studies programs across the county. That data will be collected so that the association can help to galvanize support when programs are in trouble, he said.

“Schools always embraced ethnic studies uncomfortably,” said Scapp. “It came about as a result of student and faculty protests [demanding inclusive education] some 45 years ago.”

Budget cuts are a common justification these days when ethnic studies are trimmed or eliminated from a university’s curriculum, said Kenneth P. Monteiro, the dean of the college of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University.

Good-meaning people might not see it as an assault on ethnic studies if the issue is couched in the midst of a budgetary crisis, Monteiro said. But others, who might not be as well-meaning, might see this economic and political climate as an opportunity to ax ethnic studies because they didn’t like them in the first place.

Monteiro’s program has survived a 20 percent budget cut of about $1 million over the past five years. It remains because Monteiro and his staff were able to persuade the college that the department is “valuable.”

“This is the birthplace of ethnic studies. We were wounded but we were able to survive,” Monteiro said. “Luckily, we’re in a place where the majority understands that with racism and institutional privilege, you don’t need personal intent to disproportionately cut nonstandard things. [Those advocating for the cuts] aren’t the majority, and they lost the budgetary arguments.”

Conversely, Monteiro said, “what you have in Arizona is causing people to fear that ethnic studies is subversive. When in fact, it is the American experience of people of color and dates back to our ancestors.”

Monteiro’s on the telephone regularly with dozens of program chairs seeking advice. “They don’t know whether they will exist next year. [They fear that] budgetary decisions could wipe out the intellectual and cultural traditions of everyone, not just Whites.”

What concerns him is “not one single majority White organization has condemned a modern day book burning in Arizona. If somebody tried that with European history, you wouldn’t have to be a historian saying, ‘Not on my watch.’ … It’s horrendous. It’s the silent people who are most dangerous. Our allies, our friends and keepers of academia are silent.”

Ethnic studies programs at Black colleges and universities have historically had a difficult time. But Cornelius St. Mark, the program coordinator of Africana Studies at Savannah State University, said he sees a potential in expanding his program, which offers mandatory courses to the entire student body, to include courses that explore Gullah Geechee communities in South Carolina and the Georgia Coast.

While Scapp was battling last week on a national front, St. Mark and Thomas Klein, of Georgia Southern
University, presented research papers at a Savannah State University symposium about how the Gullah Geechee culture and language is connected to West Africa..

St. Mark said his grandfather spoke fluent Gullah when he was a child, and he is committed to teaching ethnic studies at Savannah State.

During his talk, Klein said he offers one of two Gullah Geechee courses in Georgia, but St. Mark said with certainty, “It won’t be long before we have one more course [exclusively covering the subject] at Savannah State.”

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