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Are Ethnic Studies Separate or Equal?

November 08, 1998|John H. Bunzel | John H. Bunzel, former president of San Jose State University and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution

STANFORD — Ward Connerly, the University of California regent who led the fight to drop race and gender as factors in UC admissions, is setting his sights on the university's ethnic-studies programs. Does the use of race and ethnicity as a basis for scholarship make academic sense, or is it nonsense? Connerly isn't sure what the regents can do, because curricular matters are the province of faculty. But, as he said this year, it is important to find out "whether the classes are truly academic or just a lot of warm, feel-good stuff that we created years ago just to be politically correct."

His concerns are reasonable. The question is how he will interpret his findings.

Controversy over ethnic studies--African American, Asian American, Native American and Latino and Chicano studies--has a long history. Born out of Third World student strikes at San Francisco State in 1968, such programs have been established at many colleges and universities across the nation. As he seeks to determine their legitimacy and usefulness in the UC system, Connerly will profit from an examination of how ethnic-studies programs work at a number of campuses. He will quickly find that the uses of race and ethnicity have different meanings and purposes, and that what passes for scholarship in African American studies at, say, San Francisco State, would encounter serious objections at a UC school.

From its inception, black studies at San Francisco State has been a racially separate department, created to distance itself from the "corrupting" influence of "white studies" and the "white power structure" of the college. The black separatism and Afrocentrism espoused by the leaders of the Black Student Union in the late 1960s proclaimed that the curriculum should be all black (black psychology, black statistics, black science, black math, etc.), designed for black students only and taught by an all-black faculty whose sole purpose was to concentrate on blackness.

Black-studies students at San Francisco State learn of various conspiracy theories concerning the course of Western history. Among them is the "stolen legacy" claim that the Greeks "stole" the achievements of a black Egyptian culture rather than produce their own. Given the program's persistent emphasis on race, it is not surprising that several faculty members also devote considerable lecture time to the "melanin theory," which seeks to explain how the special pigmentation of black people gives them talents and powers not possessed by whites.

Connerly is justified in questioning the academic integrity of courses such as these.

But such a judgment should not lead him to feel that black studies is in principle any more or less legitimate than Asian studies or Scandinavian studies. The difficulties arise when the composition of a department is defined by race and when only students of a certain race are welcome in classes. At San Francisco State, this is apartheid parading under the banner of liberation, and it violates the academic tradition of how knowledge should be pursued and transmitted in a university.

Connerly will not find this kind of "reverse racism" at the University of California or at a number of other colleges where black studies is offered. Some of these programs reject outright black separatism and Afrocentrism. At Washington University in St. Louis, the director of the African and African American studies program, Gerald Early, has explicitly stated that his program's goal is "not therapy for the sick, not fair play for the historically abused and misinterpreted, not power for the 'subversives' to oust the white men and give blacks an alternate world, but rather the quest for truth and understanding."

Some black students on campus have protested Early's unwillingness to promote Afrocentric ideology. But, he told them, "I am not of Afrocentric thought. I do not like the idea of Afrocentrism becoming the guiding ideology of the Afro-studies program." Early insisted that his department is "an intellectual enterprise, not a social or political entity."

If Connerly does his homework, he will discover that at places like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, African American studies is recognized as a quality academic program that has attracted a core of scholars who have sought to put academic standards and performance above demands for ideological and ethnocentric militancy. This is not to suggest that these programs shy away from linking the need for intellectual leadership to the problems of the black community, as scholars such as W.E.B. DuBois envisioned in the early years of this century. While some professors who teach African American politics, public policy and history may believe in academic study and reflection for its own sake, it is fair to say that many others believe that academic excellence and activism go hand in hand.

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