Are Ethnic Studies Departments in Peril?

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Ethnic studies departments, which since the 1980s have filled U.S. college classrooms with courses that study the cultures and histories of the world's ethnic groups, are not new to controversy. They have been at the heart of the U.S. "culture wars" since their founding, provoking debate over the role of ethnicity in America. Arizona legislators struck the latest blow in the politicized fight over these programs, banning all "ethnic solidarity" classes from the state's public classrooms.

It might seem like just another iteration of the same battle that's been raging inconclusively for decades, but Columbia University ethnic studies professor Gary Okihiro warns that this is a sign that ethnic studies could really be in danger this time. And it's not just the enemies of such programs who are to blame, he says. The ethnic studies professors themselves are changing the curriculum in a way that could imperil the entire field:

But the greatest threat to the field, it appears to me, arises not from willful racists or inarticulate ethnic-studies scholars, but from liberals who have derailed the field's radical challenges into a celebration of cultural diversity and multiculturalism, or into a transnational project that loses specificity and, some might add, responsibility even as it attempts to grapple with the ideas and realities of the present moment. No longer centrally at stake are the nation-state and its particular history and formations of conquest and extermination, land appropriation and labor exploitation, regimes of inclusion and exclusion, and expansion and imperialism. Deliberately blunted is the political edge of ethnic studies, with its focus on power and demands for a more inclusive and just republic (and university) through a dismantling of hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation.

Here at Columbia University, what was once ethnic studies is being transformed, in the name of "globalization" and the study of "difference," into a field of race and ethnicity devoid of a coherent literary tradition, methodology and theory, and even practitioners.

Okihiro warns that watering down ethnic studies aids the people who oppose such academic programs. And cuts in ethnic studies, he cautions, have real consequences. "It is not inconsequential that we face a present moment of danger, of U.S. imperial wars abroad and denial of civil liberties at home, of an allied war being waged against migrants in the name of sovereign borders and against freedoms of speech and thought and religion. At risk is not merely ethnic studies, but also our democracy."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.