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Ethnic studies is the interdisciplinary study of racialized peoples in the United States and elsewhere. It evolved in the second half of the 20th century partly in response to charges that traditional disciplines such as anthropology, history, English, ethnology, Asian Studies, and orientalism were imbued with an inherently eurocentric perspective. Ethnic Studies was created to teach the stories, histories, struggles and triumphs of people of color on their own terms.



In the United States, the field of Ethnic Studies evolved out of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which saw growing self-awareness and radicalization of people of color such as African-Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and American Indians. Ethnic Studies departments were established on many campuses and grew to encompass African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Raza Studies, Chicano Studies, and Native American Studies. The first strike for Ethnic Studies occurred in 1968, (led by Third World Liberation Front, a joint effort of the Afro-American Student Association, Mexican American Students Confederation, Asian American Political Alliance, Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor, and Native American Students Union at San Francisco State University); it was the longest student strike in the nation's history, and resulted in the establishment of a School of Ethnic Studies, when President S.I. Hayakawa ended the strike by taking a hardline approach, appointed Dr. James Hirabayashi the first dean of the School (now College) of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University) [1]), and increased recruiting and admissions of students of color in response to the strike's demands. In 1972, The National Association for Ethnic Studies was founded to foster interdisciplinary discussions for scholars and activists concerned with the national and international dimensions of ethnicity.

Berkeley also conceded and President Hitch approved a department of Ethnic Studies in 1969.

Courses in Ethnic Studies tried to address the criticism that the role of Asian Americans, Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans in American history was undervalued and ignored because of Euro-centric bias. Ethnic Studies also often encompasses issues of gender, class, and sexuality. There are now hundreds of African American, Asian American, and Latino Studies departments in the US, approximately fifty Native American Studies departments, and a small number of comparative Ethnic Studies programs. Ethnic Studies as an institutional discipline varies by location. For instance, whereas the Ethnic Studies Department at UC Berkeley comprises separate "core group" departments, the department at UC San Diego does not do so. [2]

While early Ethnic Studies scholarship focused on the previously repressed histories and identities of various racialized groups within the context of the U.S., over time the field of study has expanded to encompass transnationalism, comparative race studies and postmodernist/poststructuralist critiques. While pioneering thinkers relied on frameworks, theories and methodologies such as those found in the allied fields of sociology, history, literature and film, scholars in the field today utilize multidisciplinary as well as comparative perspectives, increasingly within an international or transnational context. Most recently, "whiteness" studies has been included as a popular site of inquiry in what is a traditionally academic field for studying the racial formation of communities of color. Instead of including whites as another additive component to the Ethnic Studies, whiteness studies has instead focused on how the political and juridical category of white has been constructed and protected in relation to racial "others." Many scholars contend that while racism is a central subject to examine, one must pay attention to and interrogate the social, political and economic conditions which shaped and created race in the first place. Today, what constitutes Ethnic Studies work is fluid as scholars have taken up the study of race and ethnicity across almost all disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. In general, an "Ethnic Studies approach" is loosely defined as any approach that emphasizes the cross-relational and intersectional study of different groups.


Ethnic Studies has always been opposed by different elements. Proponents of Ethnic Studies feel that this is a reactionary movement from the right. They point out the rise of the conservative movement in the United States during the 1990s which saw the discipline come increasingly under attack. For proponents, the backlash is characterised as an attempt to preserve "traditional values" of Western culture, symbolized by the United States. For some critics, this actually is a slant by the proponents to disparage criticism by false association to right wing ideology. They have no objection about African, Latino or Native American culture being legitimate topics of academic research. What they object to is the current state of Ethnic Studies which they see as characterised by excessive left wing political ideology, postmodern, relativism which, in their view, greatly undermined the scholarly validity of the research. However, Ethnic Studies is accused of promoting "racial separatism", "linguistic isolation" and "racial preference". [3] In addition, Ethnic Studies is attacked for reinforcing stereotypes and offering simplistic explanations for the very deep fissures among different cultural groups in this country.

In 2005, a professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado at Boulder, Ward Churchill, came under severe fire for an essay he had written about the September 11, 2001 attacks in which he argued that U.S. foreign policy was partly to blame for the atrocity. Conservative commentators used the Churchill affair to attack Ethnic Studies departments as enclaves of "anti-Americanism" which promote the idea of ethnic groups as "victims" in US society, and not places where serious scholarship is done. "The epistemological nadir of any university is found in the wacky world of ethnic and gender studies: black studies, Africana studies, Chicano studies, Latino studies, Puerto Rican studies, Middle Eastern studies, Native American studies, women's studies, gay and lesbian studies, et al.," wrote columnist Mark Goldblatt in the February 9 online edition of the conservative magazine National Review. "The suggestion that 'studying' is involved in any of these subjects is laughable. they are quasi-religious advocacy groups whose curricula run the gamut from historical wish fulfillment (the ancient Egyptians were black; the U.S. Constitution was derived from the Iroquois Nation) to political axe grinding (the Israelis are committing genocide against the Palestinians; the U.S. is committing genocide against the people of Cuba)." [4]

In the face of such attacks, Ethnic Studies scholars are now faced with having to defend the field. In the media, this takes form of characterising the attack as right wing reactionary movement. For example, Orin Starn, a cultural anthropologist and specialist in Native American studies at Duke University, says: "The United States is a very diverse country, and an advocate would say we teach kids to understand multiculturalism and diversity, and these are tools that can be used in law, government, business and teaching, which are fields graduates go into. It promotes thinking about diversity, globalization, how we do business and how we work with nonprofits." [5]

In reaction to criticisms that Ethnic Studies academics undermine the study of a unified American history and culture or that the charge that they simply a "colored" version of American Studies, defenders point out that Ethnic Studies comes out of the historically repressed and denied presence of groups within the U.S. knowledge-production, literature and epistemology. Efforts to merge Ethnic Studies with American studies has been meet with fierce opposition as was the case at UC Berkeley. While the field is already decades old, the ongoing creation of new Ethnic Studies departments is fraught with controversy. Administrators at Columbia University attempted to placate student protests for the creation Ethnic Studies Department in 1996 by offering American Studies as a compromise.

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