Rethinking Race and Ethnic Studies in the Liberal Arts
How does one make Race and Ethnic Studies relevant to a generation who believes, according to a recent MTV poll, that focusing on racial differences perpetuates racism and that white people suffer from as much racial discrimination as people of color do? Although 91% of the poll’s respondents “believe in equality” and believe “everyone should be treated equally,” white millennials’ views on racial opportunities are consistent with older white Americans’ views. Despite persistent and increasing gaps between blacks and whites in almost all measures of social and economic wellbeing and the documented re-segregation, since the 1970s, of K-12 as well as higher education, until recently many white Americans were convinced that we are in a “post-racial” era where Barak Obama’s presidency and Oprah Winfrey’s position on the Fortune 500 list prove that racial barriers no longer stand in the way of success.
It would be interesting to see if the national media attention to the police killings of unarmed black men in the last year has changed some of the MTV poll respondents’ views. According to a May 2015 CBS News/New York Times poll, there is unprecedented agreement between black and white Americans that race relations are bad. At the beginning of the year, 58% of black respondents “thought that race relations were bad, but just 35% of whites agreed.” Now 61% of Americans, black and white, say race relations in this country are generally bad.
Now more than ever, undergraduates need robust programs that focus on understanding the role of race, ethnicity, and migration in all dimensions of social experience because these are fundamental categories of experience across the globe. In the U.S., ethnic studies as an academic discipline was born out the civil rights movement of the turbulent sixties, when students of color at newly integrated colleges and universities and activists with the winds of history beneath their wings demanded of U.S higher education a new accountability. They believed that scholarship and teaching should reflect the multiracial realities of the nation’s past, present, and future and scholars of color should be among those producing knowledge that was useful to their communities and policymakers. Many colleges and universities relatively quickly established Black Studies, Chicano (or Latin@ Studies), Native American Studies, and Asian American Studies programs. However, in her book, White Money/Black Power,” Dr. Niowle Rooks points out the emergence of black studies programs in the late sixties and early seventies was not simply a matter of white institutions giving in to activists’ demands, and that the investment of money from the Ford Foundation and colleges and universities had a troubling effect on both the past and present of black studies programs: “The success of the Ford Foundation’s strategy of funding black studies programs has created a complex situation wherein institutions continue to use the field in order to diversify their institutions, but very often, the preponderance of black people in and around African American studies programs, and their absence in other departments in those institutions, unfairly mark the field as an affirmative action program.” Until recently, the ethnic studies program at my own small liberal arts college was an underfunded minor with no dedicated tenure lines, widely viewed as a social or political symbol of institutional commitment to diversity, rather than a legitimate academic field central to the mission of a liberal arts college. In conversations with colleagues in the field at other institutions, this attitude of institutional minimalism is not unusual.
As both public and private institutions feel the squeeze of fewer economic resources, the right has portrayed black studies and other ethnic studies programs as political entities more committed to brainwashing than educating its students while some on the left have indeed seen the programs as either spaces for marginalized students to feel “at home” or as political action programs. Others see ethnic studies programs as no longer necessary now that Toni Morrison and Rudolfo Anaya are taught in English classes and history departments routinely offer courses in the history of people of color in the US. Still others are concerned that degrees reflecting a focus on the history and lives of people of color are esoteric and that whatever knowledge is accrued from such classes is irrelevant to getting a job.
However, after a year in which we saw nationwide, transracial outrage over what seems to be a systemic support of police brutality against black and brown people, a dramatic increase in the number of Arab and African migrants fleeing war zones and broken economic systems for Europe, the population of displaced peoples worldwide reaching the numbers of mid-sized nations, and often virulent debates over national identity and citizenship, the urgency of offering undergraduates a program of study that gives them the critical, analytical, humanistic and quantitative skills to understand and address these and other racial and ethnic issues is clear. And in this age of border crossings as a fact of life for all classes and many populations, the chances that college-educated students will find themselves working and living among those from different cultural backgrounds are very high.
While adhering to the traditional Ethnic Studies commitments of bridging theory and practice, uniting conversations in the classroom to larger communities, race and ethnic studies programs for the 21st century must be significantly different from the programs that developed in the mid-century US. Twentieth century institutional thinking about the position and role of ethnic studies classes and programs in an undergraduate context has led to a conflating of and simplistic attitude toward all kinds of social differences one may encounter on a campus. Recent events from France to Ferguson and the emergence of critical whiteness studies makes clear the fallacy of the notion that the study of the people of color, racial formations, and the histories and legacies of race-based colonial projects is not central to a rigorous and relevant liberal education. Current scholarship in the field should lead undergraduate liberal arts programs in new directions.
First, the programs must acknowledge the fluidity and permeability of racial categories and take a critical approach to the theoretical underpinnings of identity politics. The concept of intersectionality, applied to all social identities and not just those of marginalized groups, allows students to embrace a dynamic and critical attitude toward race, racial formations, and racism in a society that is still haunted by assumptions of racial and cultural essentialism. Along the same lines, spoken and unspoken assumptions that all “marginalized” groups are subject to a monolithic force called “oppression” must be unpacked. A rigorous genuinely intersectional approach to understanding racial formations and their historical and contemporary effects will complicate campus conversations about “diversity and inclusion” that puts various student groups and constituencies under the same umbrella of “marginalized groups,” but equip students to better understand the complexities of how racial and other differences are meaningful in the larger multicultural and global arenas they will enter after graduation.
Second, the programs must be genuinely inter- and multi- disciplinary. Many Ph. D. programs in Ethnic Studies are still dominated by the Social Sciences, and it is an on-going struggle in my own liberal arts college to remind my colleagues that our program in Race, Ethnicity, and Migration studies is interdisciplinary, and doesn’t “naturally” belong to the Social Science division. Developments in cultural studies and critical race theory emphasize that discursive practices that create, perpetuate, and reflect racial realties are powerful. Some traditional Ethnic Studies programs and classes treat cultural productions such as novels and film as merely illustrations of resilience, oppression, and/or historical practices. Students should develop skills and theoretical tools drawn from a variety of disciplines, from close reading of various texts—literary, mass media, and folk among them—to being able to critically “read” quantitative data and critique various disciplinary methodologies. They should have a sense of historiography. They should be able to understand transnational and intra-national diasporas from a variety of disciplinary perspectives that enrich their analyses.
Third, the programs must be transnational in scope, and discussions and analyses of the vast number of voluntary and involuntary migrations that are shaping economies, communities, and lived experiences of millions of people worldwide must be a central part of any race and ethnic studies curriculum. Students should also be familiar with different patterns and practices of colonization and decolonization.
Fourth, the dominant pedagogical paradigm of “privilege” must be scrutinized and problematized. Despite thoughtful critiques from scholars such as Nishin Nathwani and celebrity race experts like Tim Wise, US institutions of higher education remain under the spell of this simplistic neoliberal idea that, despite its claims to develop students’ ability to combat racism and other forms of bigotry the concept of privilege, actually has the effect of reifying a white, middle-class, hetero-normative center or standpoint. While the idea of privilege exercises might offer student life leaders a quick and easy way to introduce students to “diversity issues,” as a critical tool it is dangerously diversionary, making it all too easy for students to think that discussing racism as a problem of unearned individual privilege will get us any closer to addressing and changing historical and structural racial inequities and exclusion. Demanding that individuals “check their privilege” is not an effective anti-racist strategy, nor does it facilitate analysis and understanding of the meanings accorded racial difference in different areas of human endeavor.
And finally, professors in Race and Ethnic Studies classes should not try to get students to agree with their own politics. This is a tricky and sensitive area. As I have mentioned above, the noble legacy of the first generation of Race and Ethnic Studies programs was their relevance—their ability to bridge the gaps between theory and practice, to generate knowledge and scholarship that had real material and social effects. I share W.E.B. DuBois, Paulette Nardal and other groundbreaking writers’ convictions that responsible scholarship is a necessary form of activism that supports antiracist work in other spheres. However, I don’t believe that our aim as RES professors should be to get students to think the way we do. Several years ago, the RES faculty at my college had a lively debate after two professors who were teaching our introductory course, which they had structured that year around the theme of affirmative action, stated that their primary goal in the course was to persuade the students by the end of the class that affirmative action was a just and necessary policy. I would hope that by the end of such a class, students were convinced that affirmative action policies in all their varieties are attempts to address real and pervasive inequities. But students would also learn the problems and limitations of various forms and definitions of affirmative action, and do justice to the critiques of the policies and laws that fall under this rubric—not just from the right but also from critical race theorists, for example, on the left. We all bring our values, our moral commitments, and tastes into the classroom. But I believe that all professors, not just those in race and ethnic studies, should be helping our students develop their own sophisticated and intellectually sound interpretations of objects of study, including our own racially fraught history and contemporary reality.
Ultimately a relevant Race and Ethnic Studies program in a liberal arts curriculum would enable students to understand the historical conditions, events, and decisions that have shaped the meaning of race and ethnicity today and into the future. They will have at their command many conceptual and theoretical tools for understanding the multicultural and multinational world in which they will live, work, and commit themselves. They would have been exposed to many voices and perspectives and will be able to evaluate competing narratives. Whatever their background, they will be able to theorize their own experiences, values, and worldviews in a larger context. Race and ethnicity are central factors in the post-modern world, and students acquiring a liberal arts education should have access to a curriculum that foregrounds and reflects this significance.