Ethnic Studies: ”White Studies” in Black and Brown?

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education on July 4 (“Who Gets to Define Ethnic Studies?”), Kenneth P. Monteiro, dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State, criticizes what he calls “a piece of legislative hubris from Arizona that purports to ban ethnic studies in public schools.”
Monteiro was referring to Arizona House Bill 2281, passed in May, a month after Arizona’s controversial immigration legislation. It prohibits school districts or charter schools in the state from offering any classes that

1. Promote the overthrow of the united states government.
2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.


I believe Monteiro makes a pretty good case, albeit unwittingly one that reinforces the arguments of those opposed to ethnic studies in the schools. He notes, for example, that “[n]owhere does the legislation mention ethnic studies,” but his point is opaque since he then immediately acknowledges some of the primary objections of the critics:

But ethnic studies is, indeed, anchored in the histories, traditions, literatures, and philosophies of American people of color and their diaspora. The field also supports social justice and equality for all. Thus the law indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the history, development, and role of ethnic studies. It is not, and has never been, about pitting “us against them.”

Whether there is a “misunderstanding” of whether ethnic studies is “about” pitting “us against them” depends in large part on the nature and content of the “social justice” it teaches. A look at Monteiro himself and some of his own comments about ethnic studies suggests there is no misunderstanding at all.
When he was appointed the new dean of San Francisco State’s College of Ethnic Studies in 2006, for example, a university publication listing his qualifications did not emphasize his academic qualifications (which are real, including a Stanford PhD in psychology) but rather that “[h]e brings with him nearly two decades of experience and leadership in areas of diversity and civil rights,” suggesting that ethnic studies is more of an activist than academic exercise.

In his newly appointed position, Monteiro intends to recommit the College of Ethnic Studies to its fundamental values and principles, while expanding and reinventing the ways it expresses them.
“The college remains committed to social justice for and the liberation of people of color — those referred to in 1968 as ‘third world,'” Monteiro said.

In 2009, on the occasion of a conference on ethnic studies at San Francisco State, Monteiro explained how he came to the field.

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.”

No doubt because Monteiro sees ethnic studies as inherently political, he sees any criticism of it as inherently political. “The current attack on ethnic studies is really one on the public trust in general,” he told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “This attack is against public support for accessible health, education, a variety of causes.”
The Arizona law, reports the New York Times, is a victory for Tom Horne, the state superintendent of public instruction, now running for attorney general, who has fought for years to end Tucson’s ethnic studies programs.

“The most offensive thing to me, fundamentally, is dividing kids by race,” Mr. Horne said.
“They are teaching a radical ideology in Raza, including that Arizona and other states were stolen from Mexico and should be given back,” he continued, referring to the Mexican-American studies classes. “My point of view is that these kids’ parents and grandparents came, mostly legally, because this is the land of opportunity, and we should teach them that if they work hard, they can accomplish anything.”

Ethnic studies “divides students by race and promotes resentment,” Horne told the Los Angeles Times.

He singled out one history book used in some classes, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, by Rodolfo Acuna, a professor and founder of the Chicano studies program at Cal State Northridge.
“To begin with, the title of the book implies to the kids that they live in occupied America, or occupied Mexico,” Horne said last week in a telephone interview.

To defenders of ethnic studies, criticisms of it are, of course, not only political but racist. Thus the Los Angeles Times article ended with a quote from Augustine Romero, “director of student equity” in the Tucson school district, who said “it had now become politically acceptable to attack Latinos in Arizona.”
Certainly San Francisco State’s Prof. Monteiro agrees, and sounds like he and his College of Ethnic Studies are trying to liberate oppressed victims in an occupied land. In his Chronicle article he says “the Arizona law, like the revision of Texas’s history textbooks, which many respected historians believe distorts history — to, for example, extol the Confederacy and diminish the civil-rights movement — is an act of racism at its most subversive.” (I wonder what Prof. Monteiro would say if someone suggested to him that the Texas schoolbook committee was merely intent on having the schools in Texas teach “social justice and equality for all” as they understand it.)
Oddly, Monteiro complains that the Arizona law “focuses on groups of people by race or ethnicity” — can he really object to that? —

and damages them by disallowing accurate teaching of their cultural and intellectual heritages, while allowing instruction that, paid for with public money, values white people and provides derogatory content about people of color.

I don’t read the Arizona law as “disallowing accurate teaching” about anything, but perhaps that’s because I’m a product of a system, including a school system, that “values white people and provides derogatory content about people of color.”
Indeed, Monteiro does seem to think that traditional, non-ethnic studies education is permeated with misunderstanding and racism. “Nowhere,” he writes in the Chronicle,

does the Arizona legislation exclude what is too often not considered ethnic studies: white studies, the courses and classes anchored in the histories, traditions, literatures, and philosophies of white America and its diaspora. While recent scholarly work examining the social construction of whiteness has explored notions of how it has been conceived, imposed, and expressed in different eras, traditional school courses have often implicitly or explicitly promoted the supremacy of white people over others and disparaged people of color. Those courses rarely teach social justice or equality as an explicit part of the curriculum.

In fact, Monteiro concludes with what he thinks is a slam-dunk Gotcha!

Perhaps we should also ask one question not anticipated by the news media, political pundits, or Arizona legislators: Is white studies in violation of HB 2281? Examining that possibility might quickly sober the debate.

Leaving aside the question of whether everything that is not ethnic studies is “white studies,” that’s actually an interesting question. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Arizona either created actual “white studies” courses and programs and staffed “white studies” departments or, in the alternative, let us assume with Prof. Monteiro that all of Arizona’s offerings that are not ethnic studies are “white studies.” And as part of this counter-factual let us also assume that the school district announced the “Vision” and “Goals” of its “white studies” as a replica of what it now announces about its Mexican American Studies. I have changed “Mexican American/Chicano” to “White” below, but otherwise what follows is the Tucson school district’s description of its Mexican American Studies program (updated June 18, 2010, a month after the passage of the offending legislation).

Our Vision
The White Studies Department is dedicated to the empowerment and strengthening of our community of learners.
Students will attain an understanding and appreciation of historic and contemporary White contributions.
Students will be prepared for dynamic, confident leadership in the 21st Century.
Our Goals
The department is firmly committed to the following with an academic focus:
– Advocating for and providing culturally relevant curriculum for grades K-12.
– Advocating for and providing curriculum that is centered within the pursuit of social justice.
– Advocating for and providing curriculum that is centered within the White cultural and historical experience.
– Working towards the invoking of a critical consciousness within each and every student.
– Providing and promoting teacher education that is centered within Critical Pedagogy, White Critical Race Pedagogy, and Authentic Caring.
– Promoting and advocating for social and educational transformation.
– Promoting and advocating for the demonstration of respect, understanding, appreciation, inclusion, and love at every level of service.

I’m not sure the above examination of the “possibility” that “white studies” might be “in violation of HB 2281” adds any sobriety to Prof. Monteiro’s discussion of this issue, but I am happy to agree that any “white studies” program (whatever its formal name) like the one above — which, remember, is Tucson’s Mexican American/Chicano Studies program with only some names changed — certainly should be prohibited.
Perhaps ethnic studies programs such as the above have some redeeming social value, but if so they belong in churches or other voluntary organizations, not the public school system. Whatever they are, they are not academic programs at all, obliterating as they do the essential line between teaching and preaching — in fact, preaching a catechism of racial and ethnic victimization to a self-selected racial and ethnic choir.
ADDENDUM
Some readers may recall encountering the San Francisco State College of Ethnic Studies program early last fall, when the prospect of 14 year-olds receiving College Credit For Ninth Grade “Ethnic Studies” rose and then fell. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported,

San Francisco high school students, just months out of middle school, can start earning San Francisco State college credit this fall through a ninth-grade ethnic studies course….
At a school board meeting last week, the head of the university’s Ethnic Studies program also promised that students would earn up to six college course credits for the high school freshman course – a rare opportunity for a 14-year-old.

The article quoted Jacob Perea, dean of the San Francisco State School of Education, who claimed

that (the ethnic studies) course is a course set up so the kids will come out of there with the kind of information that a freshman here taking an ethnic studies course will have.

After the offer of college credit became known, and criticized, it was withdrawn.

San Francisco State University officials have backpedaled on a pledge to give college credit to ninth-graders who take an ethnic studies course after university students, professors and top brass at the college questioned the idea.

And yet, after examining Prof. Monteiro’s description and defense of ethnic studies, it is not hard to believe that 14-year-olds coming out of a ninth-grade class would indeed “come out of there with the kind of information that a freshman [at San Francisco State] taking an ethnic studies course will have.”

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