At a time when some pundits and critics contend that ethnic studies are no longer needed, the dean of the only U.S. college devoted to the discipline calls the struggle to survive a collective one.
“The current attack on ethnic studies is really one on the public trust in general,” says Dr. Kenneth Monteiro, dean of San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies. “This attack is against public support for accessible health, education, a variety of causes. We in ethnic studies aren’t isolated anymore.”
Monteiro’s observations coincide with an academic conference kicking off today at SFSU called “Race, Resistance and Relevance.” The four-day event commemorates the 40th anniversary of the founding of the discipline and the founding of SFSU’s ethnic studies college, which now boasts 50 full-time faculty teaching 6,000 students annually.
Scholars from more than 30 universities in seven countries are scheduled to present papers, films and performances exploring the state of ethnic studies in the world. Topics include: “Thinking about Race in the Twenty-First Century,” “Classical African Studies: Principles, Paradigm and Modern Issues” and “Reading and Teaching Asian American Literature.”
Universities across the country house hundreds of ethnic studies departments and courses. Monteiro says he is more worried about the future of ethnic studies programs outside SFSU, despite California’s deep budget cuts to public education that have caused students and faculty at some campuses to stage walkouts. “Unlike us, if a school has only four faculty teaching ethnic studies, and three, or even two, lose their funding, the program is essentially dead,” Monteiro says.
Meanwhile, the SFSU school — which houses departments of Asian-American studies, Africana studies, Raza studies and American Indian studies — continues to grow.
A department of Arab and Muslim studies is planned, and an academic minor in the field is expected to be approved by the end of this school year, Monteiro says. Dr. Rabab Abdul-Hadi has joined SFSU as the first of three full-time faculty members being hired.
“The voices of Arabs and Muslims were part of the original plan for the ethnic studies college, but, for whatever reason, it never happened,” Monteiro says. “We’re pleased to give birth to it now.”
This week’s SFSU conference also features Muslim and Arab content, with such sessions as “Islamophobia in Systems of Knowledge” and “Mapping Arab Diaspora: Justice Centered Activism.”
Ethnic studies emerged in higher education in response to a national student movement that protested classroom misrepresentation of histories and cultures of people of color. From Nov. 6, 1968, to March 21, 1969, the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front led a strike demanding that San Francisco State College admit and enroll more minorities, hire more minority faculty and create an ethnic studies school.
As a 16-year-old living in a small Massachusetts town at the time of the strike, Monteiro recalls viewing the protesters “as my symbolic big brothers and sisters.”
“The strike validated many of us personally as intellectuals,” he says. “It emboldened us to become college students. We thought we should be welcomed.”
Coinciding with President Barack Obama’s historic candidacy and election, some individuals have called for an end to ethnic studies, among other things, contending that U.S. society has become post-racial, implying that the need for ethnic studies no longer exists. Such proponents say the field isolates ethnicities by ghettoizing knowledge.
Monteiro disputes the notion of post-racialism, saying individuals who subscribe to the term “never finished defining race anyway. They’re just jumping over it.”
But, he emphasizes, “we’re allowing exactly this kind of debate at this week’s conference.”
Monteiro notes that one of the catch phrases of the late 1960s was “Justice, or Just Us?” when referring to the marginalization of ethnic minorities. He describes present-day attacks on the validity of ethnic studies as “an attack of the entire coalition of the ’60s.”
“It is a strange, exciting struggle we now find ourselves in, but we are now part of a larger, normative fabric,” he adds.