Ethnic studies: Bay Area university administrators are inspired by the mainstream awakening to courses’ message.
Administrators at Bay Area universities inspired by mainstream awakening to courses’ message
Fiftyone years ago, San Francisco State became the first university in the country to establish a College of Ethnic Studies. Seven years ago, SFSU graduate student Alicia Garza cofounded Black Lives Matter.
Now, amid nationwide protests against racial inequality and police brutality — and a mainstream awakening to the Black Lives Matter message — ethnic studies programs at colleges and universities hold fresh optimism for increased student interest and engagement.
This could prompt more students to enroll in classes for the fall semester, according to one SFSU professor, at a time when state officials are advancing legislation to require California State University students to take an ethnic studies course. At the least, the vigorous and sprawling response to George Floyd’s death
“I think ethnic studies classes will feel increasingly relevant.”
Amy Sueyoshi, dean of S.F. State College of Ethnic Studies
gives practical urgency to an often overlooked field of study.
“I think ethnic studies classes will feel increasingly relevant to college students nationwide,” said Amy Sueyoshi, dean of the college at San Francisco State.
The issues sparking the birth of the school’s College of Ethnic Studies in the late ’60s were all too familiar: student strikes and protests against systemic discrimination and limited opportunities for people of color. A half century later, similar challenges remain.
Many U.S. universities began ethnic studies or African American studies programs long ago. Only one other school, Cal State Los Angeles, has followed San Francisco State’s lead in forming a separate college within the university. It did so last year.
Against this backdrop, the state Senate approved a bill on June 18 requiring all students in the 23campus CSU system to take one threeunit ethnic studies class to graduate. AB1460, now back in the Assembly for legislators to review minor amendments, soon will head to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.
Cal State officials oppose the bill and are pushing for their own requirement involving courses on a wider variety of marginalized communities.
State educators also are trying to add ethnic studies courses to the K12 curriculum. That effort, bogged down amid rampant controversy about which groups to include, is not
expected to be resolved until early next year.
Shawn Ginwright, a professor of Africana Studies at San Francisco State, views the pending California State University graduation requirement as a natural progression dating to the student protests more than 50 years ago.
“California is saying that knowing ethnic history is just as significant as knowing English, science and mathematics,” Ginwright said.
Sueyoshi considers SFSU the flagship program for ethnic studies curriculum in the country, with approximately 6,000 students taking 175 courses in five departments (Africana, American Indian, Asian American, Latina/latino, and Race & Resistance). Students of color accounted for 76% of total enrollment at SFSU over the spring.
Given the growing public consciousness about the impact of racial inequality, Ginwright expects higherthanusual enrollment in ethnic studies courses this fall.
“We’re starting to see the private sector at least have some conversation about race and racial inequality,” he said. “I’m certain we’ll see a significant increase in students who want to learn more about racial inequality, as well as understanding and connecting that to their job prospects.”
Or, as Sueyoshi said, “What’s new now is there’s kind of mainstream support for advancing the lives of Black folks, and also mainstream acceptance that race continues to matter in America.”
SFSU is not sheltered from these problems. In a letter sent last week to school President Lynn Mahoney and other campus leaders, members of the SFSU chapter of the California Faculty Association protested “harmful racial politics” and asserted “racial inequality is not improving on this campus but is becoming more entrenched.”
The letter cited incidents of racial profiling by campus police, demanded defunding of the Police Department and criticized hiring and administrative decisions.
“U.S. universities, since their inception, have been complicit in perpetuating white supremacy and racial inequities,” Mahoney said in a statement emailed to The Chronicle. “The CFA is expressing the frustration of many who are tired of inequities, statesanctioned violence and words. I know we must move beyond words to concrete actions . ...
“Our actions include a plan to implement mandatory antiracism education for all managers at San Francisco State University, develop stronger pipelines for Black students to higher education and strengthen our focus on inclusive hiring.”
Among the faculty association’s other demands was that the College of Ethnic Studies “receive full funding commensurate with other colleges.” This echoed a concern raised by Nikki Jones, a UC Berkeley professor and acting chair of the school’s Department of African American Studies. Jones was encouraged to learn that some schools, including UCLA and Washington University in St. Louis, recently pledged to invest in their African American studies departments.
But she also fears “retrenchment,” knowing these programs often are threatened during an economic crisis such as the one caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We need to realize how essential these departments are,” Jones said. “The hows and whys of this moment are answered every day in Black studies and ethnic studies classes across the country.”
San Francisco State is not the only Bay Area school to occupy a prominent place in the history of this discipline. The Olympic Project for Human Rights started in 1967 at San Jose State — sparked by Harry Edwards, later a longtime Cal sociology professor — and led to the famous protest by sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who held raised fists during the U.S. national anthem at their medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Three years ago, San Jose State founded the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change. That takes on particular significance in 2020, as athletes increasingly lend their voices to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Akilah Carterfrancique, executive director of the institute and an associate professor in African American studies, seeks to connect the past and present for her students. Her grandparents, for example, fled Tulsa, Okla., after the Tulsa race massacre of 1921.
“My goal is to help young people understand and contextualize this moment,” CarterFrancique said. “Some of them don’t quite understand how we got here.”
She finds hope in the rising engagement of college students, such as San Jose State soccer and basketball players’ recent event to raise money and awareness for Black Lives Matter. Student athletes at Texas spoke out about changing the school song, which has racist undertones.
Ginwright, the SFSU professor, also traced current events to the importance of educating college students on ethnic history. He and other Bay Area professors want to seize the unprecedented momentum to address racial inequality.
Black Lives Matter is really a claim about humanity, Ginwright said, and has inspired a movement in which “the rules are being rewritten before our eyes.” Higher education plays a vital part in what happens next.
“We’ve always created seeds of consciousness,” he said. “We’ve filled that role and continue to fill that role. The question now is the future, and how we expand the significance of Africana studies.”
Shawn Ginwright, professor of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University, says: “I’m certain we’ll see a significant increase in students who want to learn more about racial inequality” in the wake of protests.