The Debate Over Ethnic Studies

Photo: Timmy Truong/University Times

A heated debate over Ethnic Studies has gripped the campus at Cal State L.A. over the last month. Dating back to 1968, Cal State L.A. is known for having the first Chicana/o Studies program in the United States. Considering this historic precedent, and that 90 percent of the student body includes people of color, it is easy to see why this debate is relevant. This week L.A. Letters examines the unfolding debate at Cal State L.A. and discusses why Ethnic Studies and events like Black History Month remain important.

Over the last two years I have been enrolled in the Masters' Program at Cal State L.A. Though it has been in the news, up until a few days ago I had not encountered the protests and the public debates about the Ethnic Studies issue directly because my heavy workload and many writing deadlines have kept me in the library. This all changed earlier this week, when coming out of the campus bookstore I encountered a crowd of about 50-plus students and several professors, listening to a young woman read a poem on a megaphone. Following her poem, a young man got up and enthusiastically led the group in chanting, "What do we want?" "Ethnic Studies!" "When do we want it now?" "Now!" Their passion was very moving and led me to stop what I was doing to listen to the speakers.

The passion of the student activists took me back 21 years and reminded me of spring 1993, when I was a freshman at UCLA. A very similar series of protests unfolded that year, when student activists demanded that the Chicana/o Studies Department at UCLA be officially established. Though an Interdisciplinary Chicano Studies Department had been on campus since 1973, cutbacks in the late 1980s had downsized the course load to a much smaller set of classes. By 1993, many students were concerned that the program would disappear altogether if they did not take action.

This led a handful of UCLA students to protest on campus and stage a hunger strike. Similar to the many debates now happening at Cal State L.A. in 2014, this series of events echoed throughout UCLA in 1993. After a few clashes with campus police and a 14-day hunger strike, the demands of the UCLA student activists were met. Some say the UCLA chancellor only made the concessions after national outlets like the New York Times reported the story. Either way, the students did prevail.

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Standing on the steps of the campus bookstore listening to the student activists a few days ago, I thought about how not much has changed in the last two decades. The conviction of the student activists led me to research the recent events, and there is more than meets the eye. Communication Studies major and reporter for the University Times at Cal State L.A., Angeline Bernabe has been closely covering the Ethnic Studies debate on campus over the last month. Bernabe has authored several articles on the issue since late January when it first began to heat up. It all began because Cal State L.A. is in the process of changing their General Education curriculum.

The central issue revolves around the two class diversity requirement. The dispute lies in the fact that a coalition of students, faculty, staff, and community supporters want "at least one of the two diversity courses to be taken in one of the four Ethnic Studies/Area Studies Departments/Programs: Asian/Asian American Studies, Chicana/o Studies, Latin American Studies, or Pan African Studies." The ultimate decision is determined by the academic senate, which is a committee of 55 university stakeholders that are an equal mix of professors, administrators, graduate students and undergraduates. They have voted a few times on the issue over the last month, and when the motion was denied in late January, the protests began.

Chicano community activist and recent Chicana/o Studies Masters Graduate David Cid has been covering the play by play over the last month on his blog, Notes from Aztlan. Cid's analysis makes a salient point about the location of Cal State L.A. when he writes, "being in the heart of East Los Angeles, it only makes sense to provide the intellectual and cultural space for students on this campus to explore how institutional racism manifests itself." Cid sees the ongoing debates as a good thing, especially considering the historic legacy of Cal State L.A. as having the nation's first Chicano Studies Department, as well as one of the first Black Studies Department. Cid also notes that many people are misunderstanding the issues at hand.

Much of the debate is pure semantics. Bernabe reports in the University Times that, "At the gathering in front of the bookstore on Tuesday before the Senate meeting, Dr. Melina Abdullah, the chair of Pan African Studies, and Dr. Beth Baker-Cristales, the chair of Latin American Studies, both expressed the urgency to make Ethnic Studies a required course." These announcements excited the crowd. Interestingly enough though, Bernabe writes that, "both the Chicano Studies (CHS) Department and the Asian and Asian American Studies (AAAS) Program do not agree with the proposal to make Ethnic Studies a requirement. Both released similar statements that they do not support the motion that will require students to take one Ethnic Studies Course as one of their required diversity courses."

CSULA students protest Academic Senate | Photo: Notes from Aztlan

Apparently the Chicano Studies Department and Asian American Studies programs are afraid that by requiring students to take one diversity course they will be flooded with students and not have the resources to serve everyone, particularly their upper division majors. David Cid recently blogged about the L.A. City Council's perspective on this issue. Cid noted that they voted 14 to 0 in favor of the Ethnic Studies Requirement.

Among those that oppose the measure, some student speakers made the claim that we now "live in a post-racial society." Others that oppose it, like the Chicano Studies and Asian American Studies Departments, are against it because of the previously stated reason that it would overwhelm their staffing requirements. David Cid notes that the two sides are closer than they think, and that most want Ethnic Studies on campus, but that they just disagree on how to implement it and the exact parameters that will be established.

In the midst of all this action, the groundbreaking activist rapper KRS-One performed live at Cal State L.A. on Wednesday February 19. One of his best known songs, "You Must Learn," advocates learning one's history, and is especially relevant to the current situation. One of the key lines in the song states, "It seems to me that in a school that's ebony/African history should be pumped up steadily, but it's not/and this has got to stop." Though Cal State L.A. is more Chicano than African-American, the premise argued by KRS makes great sense. Teaching material directly relevant to the student body is a great way to empower students and activate their own agency in their education. The timing of his performance is rather uncanny considering recent events.

Cal State L.A. is home to many professors of color, and many events there promote diversity, like on Thursday February 27, award-winning novelist Nalo Hopkinson will be on campus. Hopkinson is considered one of the progenitors of an emerging genre, Afrofuturism. Science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism all merge in her novels and short stories. She will be appearing as a guest of both the Pan African Studies and Department of English. Hopkinson, currently teaching Creative Writing at UC Riverside, is often compared to the seminal science fiction author Octavia Butler, who attended Cal State L.A. during the 1960s. Hopkinson's 2013 novel, "Sister Mine" was praised by the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Junot Diaz. Events like Hopkinson's reading and KRS-One's performance show the campus is committed to diverse programming.


A recently published book sheds light on the Ethnic Studies issue. "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975," published recently by Haymarket Books, is somewhere between a coffee-table book and a history text. It includes oral history testimony, rare photos, new archival information, and excerpts from speeches by figures like Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King, Jr., Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale. A documentary of the same name was released last year, directed by Swedish filmmaker Goran Olsson. The book is formatted chronologically, and includes interviews from contemporary luminaries like Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, Robin D.G. Kelley, Sonia Sanchez, Talib Kweli, and Questlove from the Roots.

One of the book's most poignant moments is a quote from Questlove that addresses those that think we live in a "post-racial society." He says, "Americans, especially privileged Americans, are really in denial about what is going on for Black people, for underprivileged people, period, but mainly for Black people. Just because I'm allowed to drink out of the same water fountain or, you know, have a turkey dinner at Walmart's lunch counter doesn't necessarily equal progress or doesn't mean that the wrongs of four hundred years are justified." Questlove's quote also explains why events like Black History Month and the Ethnic Studies debate remain relevant.

The academic senate has voted on the Ethnic Studies issue a few times now and it has yet to pass. The protests began after the first defeat a few weeks ago. The issue is still very much in the air. The student activists are gaining momentum and have been staging more protests and a few open mics to voice their feelings. Many have noted that the campus has not had this much energy since the days of Vietnam and the original Chicano Moratorium in the early 1970s.

As the weeks go on, there will undoubtedly be a resolution reached. Student support of Ethnic Studies continues to grow throughout campus; considering the school's demographics, it makes good sense. As David Cid notes, "Students enrolled in Ethnic Studies courses are more likely to be more engaged in their classes, which leads to student success, and retention more likely leading towards higher graduation rates."

All in all, this debate has electrified the Cal State L.A. campus. The school also has a new President, so change is in the air on all fronts. Though we have made great progress as a nation, there is still a long way to go, as Questlove reminds us. For this reason, Black History Month remains important, and so does Ethnic Studies. The movement of student activists on campus has been growing, and it is great to see the youth becoming politically active and passionate about something. The students' efforts have been lauded in the local press, and even supported unanimously by the Los Angeles City Council. The issue remains in the hands of the academic senate and should be settled in the coming weeks. In the meanwhile, salute to the student activists campaigning for Ethnic Studies, they are emerging agents of change in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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