The Association of Asian American Studies celebrated a major diversity milestone over the Easter weekend at its national conference in San Francisco, 50 years after a student strike at San Francisco State University birthed ethnic studies as a model for the nation.
March 20, 1969 marked the end of the longest student strike in U.S. history, a five-month-long outcry for campus equity and social justice that started on Nov.6, 1968.
Leading the way was a coalition of Black students and other students of color dubbed the Third World Liberation Front.
After all these years, the biggest prize won in that fight remains the establishment of what is believed to be a first: a full college of ethnic studies. Not just a department, but a complete school within the university that encompassed the full panoply of diverse students, including Black, Latino and Asian.
Theo Gonsalves, installed this weekend as president of AAAS, benefitted from the program as a grad student before moving on to professorships at the University of Hawaii and University of Maryland Baltimore County.
But it is his mentor, Daniel P. Gonzales, associate professor of Asian American Studies of the College of Ethnic Studies at SFSU, who knows the history of ethnic studies even better.
Gonzales wasn’t just one of the handful of students to strike and to demand and create the school’s curriculum from scratch. He went on to be one of the department’s pillars.
“We planned (ethnic studies) in ’68, made an initial demand in ‘68, and early ‘69 the strike was settled, so our first classes were offered in the fall, late August, early September, of ‘69,” Gonzales explained in a conversation last weekend before speaking at an AAAS plenary session.
Gonzales was quick to add that the strike – though sometimes referred to as the “San Francisco riots” because of some instances of brutal police overreaction to students – was far from a riot. He said it was generally peaceful and productive, a movement that gave voice to the concerns of students from the city’s working-class ethnic communities who identified with the oppressed peoples of the Third World.
“We were demanding Third World studies,” said Gonzalez, who didn’t know who made the compromise to ethnic studies. But he understood why. “Third World studies is a politically loaded term. It’s clearly left of center and highly critical of colonialism and neo-colonialism.”
In many ways, the student mix from the San Francisco Bay area was a product of the boom from the 1965 Immigration Act that allowed for greater Asian immigration, which meant a diverse student community combined with a growing Latino population. Add to that a general dissatisfaction among working-class Blacks and Whites throughout society during the Vietnam era and it created a student body with needs for which the administration was unprepared.
The college’s president at the time was S.I Hayakawa, whom Gonzales called anti-strike and an “assimilationist” who wanted newcomers simply to blend in. Hayakawa echoed the traditionalist view of critics who described ethnic studies using the pejorative phrase “basket-weaving.”
But Gonzales said the strikers believed in the need for a curriculum to be an educational drawbridge both ways, not just for ethnic students but for others seeking a legitimate field of study.
“The history is connected to not only how we see ourselves but how others see us,” Gonzales said. “That’s what we were trying to address with ethnic studies…It wasn’t just about us studying ourselves. The purpose was to provide a forum and a series of learning experiences that could educate anyone interested in understanding the conditions that people of color face in American society and also having interest in participating in the process of building a more just America, a fairer society.”
It’s what made the fight more than just for a few classes or a department, but for controlling interest within a school of its own.
“We were very intent and would not have settled for anything less than actual ‘school’ status,” Gonzales said.
The strikers believed that were it to become a department or program rather than a school, the university could have ultimate authority and veto power over curriculum and hires, or over inclusion in general education requirements.
“We understood the political need to establish what we did as a school,” Gonzales said.
To this day, as SFSU itself moved to full university status, Gonzales said the commitment to be a full college of ethnic studies has made all the difference.
It’s enabled ethnic studies to ward off funding threats over the years.
Gonzales noted that more elite schools struggle to get even a few classes or a department, even in ethnically dense populations such as Southern California. SFSU, he realizes, has been fortunate and steady during what has always been an uphill climb.
“The majority of people in the Asian-American communities weren’t really very supportive of ethnic studies or Asian-American studies,” said Gonzales. “But that minority of very progressive people and moderate liberals understood the value and recognized that racism was an issue and that our history and our experience and contributions to society had not been adequately recognized.”
He said the Trump era has made ethnic studies more relevant, as the current political situation is like the political situation of the Sixties.
“Back then there was a major racist reaction to the increasing presence of non-Whites, is what the generalized term was,” Gonzales said. “Many people in the United States still rationalize that this was intended to be a White society, and therefore if not White supremacy, at least White privilege should be a clear and accepted principle. And it’s pretty clear the Trump administration has been moving in that direction.”
In Asian American terms, what Trump is doing goes back to the 19th Century Chinese Exclusion laws. The current xenophobic trend expresses the need not just for Asian-American Studies, but for all ethnic studies.
After all, it’s just the history that usually gets left out of a curriculum that fails to value diversity.
Emil Guillermo is a veteran journalist and commentator who writes for https://www.aaldef.org/blog/.