Ethnic Studies, from Arizona High Schools to NYC Campuses

Nikhita Venugopal |

Professor Arlene Davila signs books at the NCORE conference on June 1, 2012. Photo by Nikhita Venugopal.

As the racial and ethnic demographics of the United States shift, questions of identity and difference are being in raised in places such as Arizona, which this year banned Mexican-American studies in the Tucson public school system. Last Friday, the conversation on ethnic studies came to New York City.

Arlene Davila, professor of Anthropology and of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, addressed the 25th Annual National Conference for Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education, or NCORE 2012, with her keynote speech, “Culture Works: On Race, Institutions, and the ‘Educated’ Commons.” The conference drew more than 2,300 attendees to the Marriott Marquis in Times Square between May 30 and June 2.

Davila talked about the necessity for ethnic studies in higher education as well as in the high school curriculum. Ethnic studies originated from social movements and as a demand for respect and representation by African Americans, Latinos and other racial minorities in the United States, said Davila. While it is often seen as a narrow subject, ethnic studies is actually much broader and influential than is commonly understood, Davila added.

“A vibrantly diverse university does not negate the need for specialized ethnic studies spaces,” said Davila, whose work focuses on Puerto Ricans in the eastern United States, and Latinos nationwide.

Earlier this year, the Arizona Superintendent of Schools, John Huppenthal, suspended Mexican-American studies in Tucson public schools on the basis of a state law he helped pass as senator in May 2010: HB 2281 bans public school courses that advocate the overthrow of the United States, promote racial resentment, or treat students as members of an ethnic group rather than as individuals. He is now threatening to take the fight to the state university system.

The law partly sounds like an effort to prevent racism and stereotyping; the surprise in Arizona is that supporters of the public school ban insist that Mexican American studies incites resentment against the Anglo population and that the material is often taught in a biased manner. Are the tensions in Arizona, where Census data puts the Hispanic or Latino population at nearly 30 percent (compared to roughly 16 percent nationally) a harbinger of more twists on racial prejudice arguments to come? Last month, the U.S. Census reported that non-Hispanic whites are the minority in births for the first time in the nation’s history.

“There’s a reason that it is ethnic studies and not English Literature or American history or even Food Studies that is currently under attack,” said Davila, who explained that the field has historically engaged in the critical conversations about history, sociology and the present and future state of the country.

Although the Arizona educational board targeted only the Mexican American program, it is seen as a strike against all ethnic studies, said Davila. She added that it was important to understand this issue from a national perspective and not as an Arizona-specific problem.

“What Arizona is doing is bringing it to the forefront,” she said.

Professor Arlene Davila talks with students who attended the NCORE conference on June 1, 2012. Photo by Nikhita Venugopal.

In New York City, several universities offer various programs in ethnic studies. At  Columbia University, students can specialize in Asian-American studies, Latino Studies and Native American or Indigenous Studies. Similarly, the Center for Ethnic Studies under the City University of New York (CUNY) offers courses in Asian, Africana and Latino studies. However, Davila maintains that many scholars tend to focus on national and regional specific studies like Latin American history as opposed to the Chicano culture. While NYU allows students to major in programs like Africana, Latino and Asian studies, Davila said she has noticed a similar trend there as there is only one scholar working on Chicano land rights and a limited number of Latino scholars on the whole.

“You’re likely to go to the history department and find historians working in Bolivia or in Mexico but not likely to find a historian working on Chicano history,” she said. “This is certainly the case at NYU.”

Students and teachers from across the country attended Davila’s speech, including 18-year-old Huda Kohin, a freshman at the University of San Diego. Kohin said she recalls that while studying with a large population of Latin American students at her high school in San Diego, she noticed that they were unable to relate their culture to the class curriculum, causing the Latino students to divide their home and school life.  The ban on Mexican American studies is not effective in the Arizona higher education sphere but Kohin believes that such a ruling could take away from the college academic experience and obstructs a student’s freedom to choose their own path of study.

“I can no longer take a class to learn about my best friend’s culture because you’re taking it out schools,” she said. “If we’re only going to be learning only about Anglo-America and isolating everyone else that contributed to this country, it’s no longer a fair education.”

Arlene Davila, a Professor of Anthropology and of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, addressed the audience with her keynote speech at the NCORE conference on June 1, 2012. Photo by Nikhita Venugopal.

Nikhita Venugopal is an intern at and a freelance reporter in the city. She recently graduated from the journalism school at Columbia University. You can follow her on Twitter @nkvenugopal.

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