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Why Ethnic Studies Matters

Northern Arizona University defines ethnic studies as “the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity, as understood through the perspectives of major underrepresented racial groups in the United States.” Most universities across the nation (including UIC) have ethnic studies programs. These programs provide a more comprehensive understanding of  our history, by including the parts deemed unimportant by mainstream textbooks.

This past week, I gave a presentation in my Racialization of Latinos course about ethnic studies. My main points were: 1. to explain why these programs are important and 2. the backlash these programs have endured since they were created. To make these points, I used a class reading and video clips.


Save Ethnic Studies by Julio Salgado 

The article “A Social Justice Approach to Achievement” by Julio Cammarota describes the implementation of an experimental social science curriculum at Cerro High School in Tucson, Arizona. This curriculum, called the Social Justice Education Project (SJEP), was created to demonstrate that “at-risk” youth should be motivated and challenged in order to improve.

He uses theories by Foucault, Sanchez and other social scientists to condemn standardized testing, and explain how pressure on students and schools to perform well impacts curriculums. The students chosen for the SJEP were Latino, working-class and considered to be at risk. Instead of rote learning, these students were given college level assignments and completed research projects.

By the end of the program, all of the students involved graduated or were on track to graduate. Students reported new feelings of empowerment, knowledge and confidence to graduate and apply for college. Considering that many of them were considering dropping out, this is an amazing turnaround. Cammarota explains that since the program focused on issues pertinent to the Latino community, students were more motivated to learn and perform well.

These same sentiments were expressed by Ron Espiritu, a high school ethnic studies teacher in South Los Angeles. In a Tedx Talks video, Espiritu shares his personal experiences with a lack of minority-focused education, and how his teaching has impacted  black and Latino students.

Even though teachers and students support ethnic studies, these programs have faced opposition since their inception. Some have even been banned because of the negative response from school boards, parents and the general public. Many reasons are given for why ethnic studies should not be permitted, the most common and notable being that it is un-American, divisive and fosters resentment of whites.

An episode of the Daily Show touches on this by covering the Mexican-American studies ban in Tucson. It perfectly highlights the mindset of people against ethnic studies: they don’t know or care about these programs, but that doesn’t stop them from discontinuing a program that has such positive effects on white and minority students. The school board member has never attended a Mexican-American studies class, and yet he dislikes it enough to vote against it.


Personally, I believe that ethnic studies should be not only in colleges, but in high schools and grammar schools, as well. As of right now, ethnic studies are presented as a choice: as a college student, I can choose to take (or not take) an African American studies course. Which means, I can potentially go through my entire college career without learning any black history beyond MLK and Harriet Tubman. This doesn’t seem right to me.

History, especially U.S. history, should not be optional for U.S. students. Any educated citizen should have a complete understanding of our history, the good and the bad. Learning history from a Native American or Asian American perspective is not “un-American” or “divisive”, it is honest. Hopefully, we as a nation will reach a point when ethnic studies is given the importance that it deserves at all levels of the educational system.



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