On Comparative Ethnic Studies

By Gary Y. Okihiro
February 20, 2004

"The students who violated the Rules of University Conduct between April 9 and April 15, 1996 will not be expelled or suspended, nor will the graduation of any seniors among them be delayed," reads the agreement signed by Columbia College Dean Austin Quigley and Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis, among others, "for the university." "The student demonstrators will vacate Hamilton Hall immediately" and "the students on hunger strike will cease their hunger strike." Thus ended the student action on April 15, 1996 that enabled Columbia's Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race to be launched in the fall of 1999.


At the time of the strike, I was a professor of history and director of the Asian American Studies Program at Cornell University. At the behest of some of the student strikers, I came to Columbia to advise them, not knowing that about two years later the vice president for arts and sciences would invite me to help the University establish its own Asian American studies program and, a year later, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. I accepted those invitations partly in acknowledgment of those students who sought to enrich their education by democratizing Columbia's curriculum.

I recall discussing with the students the risk they had put themselves in both as hunger strikers, possibly injuring their bodies, and as demonstrators subject to University censure. They believed in their cause and knowingly accepted the consequences of their choices. For although the University agreed not to pursue "charges against the students arrested in Low Library on April 10 for criminal trespass," it retained the right to subject all students who participated in the sit-ins in Low Library and Hamilton Hall "to the sanction of censure, as defined by the Rules of University Conduct, for two years or until they graduate from their current program of enrollment, whichever occurs first."

To act on the courage of their convictions, Columbia's student strikers followed and later led a host of students on other campuses at other times, beginning with the students, faculty, staff, and community members at San Francisco State College (now University) who participated in the largest and longest student strike in U.S. history, in the fall of 1968. For a "college of ethnic studies," thousands of students rallied, over 900 students and faculty were arrested statewide, many served jail sentences, and at San Francisco State, scores of demonstrators suffered injuries at the hands of the police who were called in to quell the uprising.

Nearly 30 years later, Columbia, perched in the midst of African-American and Latina/o Harlem, joined the rest of the nation in instituting ethnic studies. Over the course of those decades, ethnic studies has evolved intellectually and grown rapidly such that its centers, programs, and departments now number in the hundreds, its students, in the tens of thousands, and its faculty, in the thousands. In addition to undergraduate degrees, ethnic studies confers graduate degrees at public and private universities from the University of California, Berkeley in the West to Harvard University in the East.

These days it is simpler to speak about caricatures of ethnic studies than about its substance. Such has been the effectiveness of the cartooning of ethnic studies during the "culture wars" of the 1980s and '90s with widely disseminated books like Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987). So it is now easier to speak about what ethnic studies is not than to speak about what it truly is.

Ethnic studies is not "victim studies" or the lamentation of minorities over what the majority has inflicted upon them. Ethnic studies is neither "compensatory education" nor "intellectual affirmative action"--redress for past wrongs. Ethnic studies is not identity politics or the efforts of minorities to mobilize for empowerment and social gains. Ethnic studies is not about "political correctness," a term appropriated, by the way, like "affirmative discrimination," from the Left by the Right. Ethnic studies is not multiculturalism or the celebration of cultural diversity for self-gratification and worth. (Strike up "We Are the World" or "It's a Small World After All" here, or recall possibly Rodney King's poignant "Why can't we all get along?")

Columbia's comparative ethnic studies is primarily a multidisciplinary and systematic study of racializations, but it does not ignore their intersections and divergences with ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and nation or citizenship either. It is foremost an academic course of study, with its methods and theories, its literatures and canons, and its practitioners. Comparative ethnic studies draws from disciplines but it has also advanced knowledge and pushed borders as an inter-discipline and as a view from the margins, and it is particularly attentive to the questions of representations, social hierarchies, inequalities, and the movements of peoples, ideas, and capital across national boundaries. In essence, comparative ethnic studies focuses upon the locations and articulations of power as expressed in social formations.

The complexities of those subject matters should be self-evident, and its significance transparent. Nationally, American studies has recognized the importance of ethnic studies, along with women's and queer studies. For although its starting point is the U.S., ethnic studies' compass embraces the world. The African, Asian, and Latina/o diasporas highlight the nation's outward reach in the past through expansionism (at times called "manifest destiny"), colonialism, and mercantile and industrial capitalism, to the present in the Bush regime's mission of U.S. global dominance.

Those diasporas also reveal the consequences of empire in the return of those peoples and capital from the peripheries to the center. American studies, together with U.S. history, has begun to see itself as an area -- as opposed to nation-bound study, freed from the constraints and assumptions of exceptionalism and in earnest conversation with the rest of the Americas and the world. Furthermore, within the discrete borders of the nation, the perspective from and deeds of the margin enables insights often missed, slighted, or distorted by the center.

And yet, those voices and acts of "minorities" have contributed much to the "majority." I am thinking here about that small group of Columbia student strikers who sought a more inclusive curriculum representative of America's diverse peoples. That opening of Columbia's mind benefited not only the formerly excluded--African- and Asian-Americans and Latina/os--but indeed, all of Columbia's students.

The Institute for Research in African-American Studies, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, and the newly instituted comparative ethnic studies major and concentration, approved after two and a half years of deliberation, have expanded Columbia's offerings, reflecting not only a turn in U.S. higher education but also the social realities, past and present, of the nation and world.

The author is director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and professor of international and public affairs.

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