Are ethnic studies relevant? - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Are ethnic studies relevant?

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Posted: Wednesday, June 2, 2010 4:08 pm

Inferring "ethnic chauvinism," racial resentment, and ethnic solidarity, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill on May 11 placing restrictions on the teaching of ethnic studies.

I wonder what the bill is really all about?

My experience with ethnic studies began my senior undergraduate year at the University of Houston in the mid-1960s. No ethnic studies courses were yet offered, even though the civil rights movement occupied a lot of our thinking and activities. A new faculty member and recent Harvard graduate, Carl Akins, offered the university's first graduate seminar on black politics.

Akins invited me to join, which I did, even though he knew (1) I was much younger than the average student in his advanced class, (2) his course was very demanding, with a required reading list of one book a week or more and a 50-page original paper at the end, and (3) I was a research assistant at Rice University doing work in a Hispanic neighborhood, that seemed hardly compatible with the demanding course.

From the copious reading, one revelation after another unfurled about human migrations, historical events, community building and the role of politics. A picture emerged about how people have struggled against fragmentation and displacement. (Yes, I also read the "Autobiography of Malcolm X" and Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael.)

But what mostly came out was how policy and public attitudes can help or hinder. Race prejudice, when it is a reality, can be abated. When the powers-that-be neglect matters or are wrong-headed, things can get worse.

Akins suggested I write a paper on "The Negro Family," authored by then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who became a leading intellectual and later U.S. Senator from New York. Among his many points, the most controversial was that, after three centuries of perseverance, many black families were experiencing a "pathology" of interrelated factors leading to the breakdown of the family structure, female-dominated matriarchy (male alienation), and unemployment. Civil-rights legislation helped, but it was the beginning, not the end point.

Moynihan said the way out of the dilemma was through a social assimilation (bringing in, instead of repelling), recognizing the inter-related problems. Public understanding was not easily penetrated with simplistic answers or one-line issues and answers. "We must first reach agreement on what the problem is, then we will know what questions must be answered," said Moynihan.

My paper was about how family stability could be a focus where blacks and Hispanics had a mutual policy interest. A policy course of action could help minimize the relationship between unemployment and family instability, family instability and educational advancement.

In current times, the same basic proposition still holds, as James T. Patterson recently wrote in The New York Times. He points out how Moynihan still applies today because of the need to see the interrelationships between policy, politics and the social fabric.

Later, as an anthropologist, I researched how an economy that marginalizes some people destabilizes family culture. This was as true on Native American reservations as in the hollers of Kentucky. Family life (the primary support group) is disrupted and becomes unpredictable when it lacks economic stabilizers that are also dependent on stable families. And the durability of economic stability is formal education.

If the objective is to build a better society (and not social promotion through political games), passage of the bipartisan Dream Act, sponsored by Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) is one example. This measure would allow approximately 65,000 youth who have lived virtually their entire lives here, but who are technically illegal immigrants, to enroll in college.

In Arizona, if the policy objective had really been to solve problems, Gov. Brewer would have promoted a bill to put the state's eligible young people in college instead of sowing seeds of dissention by trying to curb ethnic studies.

Which makes me to wonder whether any of the public officials voting for the bill ever took uncensored ethnic studies in Arizona? Without it, how can a public official serve all of the people, when 40 percent are non-majority-ethnic populations (Hispanic, Native American, Black, Asian, and others)?

Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at

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