Why the Decision to Make Ethnic Studies a Requirement in Higher Education Matters Now More Than Ever

BELatina Ethnic Studies Latinx

Between the ideological controversy over the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and unscripted comments like Joe Biden’s “diversity” of communities of color, the reality is that the country has a long way to go to learn from its own diversity.

For Shirley Weber, a member of the California Assembly, the solution has always been in one place: education.

The Democrat has brought her nearly 50-year struggle for the survival of ethnic studies departments at state universities into the legislative debate, urging Governor Gavin Newsom to sign a measure that would transform ethnic studies into a requirement for undergraduates in the country’s largest public university system.

In the United States, ethnic studies are understood as the interdisciplinary study of difference race, ethnicity, nation, sexuality, gender and power, both in the state and in civil society and social dynamics.

The discipline emerged as an academic field in the second half of the 20th century and amid civil movements against racism and academic obfuscation for ignoring the histories of people of color in the country.

In short, ethnic studies emerged as a way to dismantle forever the tradition that “history is written by the victors.”

And at such a critical time for communities of color in the United States, the California Assembly proposal is more important than ever.

If passed, Weber’s bill AB 1460 would become a historic landmark that challenges the traditions of campus autonomy but seeks to educate new generations in the heterogeneity of ethnic identities that make up the American social fabric.

Supporters of the project, including leaders of ethnic studies colleges, student activists, and Black Lives Matter organizers, consider it “a key lever in the national uprising against racism,” reported The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The proposal contemplates that students in the California State system would have to take a course concerning one of four groups at the core of the ethnic-studies field: Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latina/o Americans. 

The bill left the Assembly a week ago and is expected to be signed by Newsom by the 15th of this month. 

Compared to the proposal offered by Chancellor Tim White and approved by the CSU Board of Trustees last month, this new proposal adopts “a stricter and more traditional view of ethnic studies,” according to Edsource, an educational strategy platform.

“The chancellor’s office every step of the way has refused to listen to faculty, students, and its own council on ethnic studies despite the fact this bill has been around for two years,” Weber said last week. “We’ve pushed the issue of ethnic studies on behalf of all students … people need to understand each other and appreciate who they are and appreciate those around them.”

Weber said the ethnic studies proposal from the chancellor’s office is “weak and ineffective” because it broadens the requirement to the point that students could technically graduate without ever taking one of the four core ethnic studies courses.