Conservatives aim at ethnic studies centers, already affected by higher ed cuts
Ethnic studies centers are being targeted by conservative groups who say that the history of Western Civilization, not the lives of minorities in the United States, should be the primary focus of college students. But professors who have devoted their careers to ethnic studies, which are being impacted by general higher ed budget cuts, say that Texas’ rapidly expanding minority populations make ethnic studies even more important than in the past.
“We’re a hub for Mexican American students — about 15 percent — and it won’t be 10 years until we become a Hispanic-serving institution,” said Susan Gonzalez-Baker, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. “How can you take a budding Hispanic studies center and gut it?”
The Young Conservatives of Texas, according to their 82nd legislative agenda, favor eliminating funding for diversity programs, gender and sexuality centers, and ethnic and gender studies programs, saying they believe “these programs and centers distract from a university’s core mission of teaching and expend valuable resources to promote an explicitly left-wing political and social agenda.” This is the same group that targeted LGBT centers in this legislative session, pushing a bill that would make “family values” centers receive equal funding.
Gonzalez-Baker pointed out that her own university’s administration has been highly supportive of her center, but that recent legislative cuts, which have affected the entire university, have resulted in a loss of about one-third of her operating budget She is worried what the future will hold in a political climate that denigrates ethnic studies. In Arizona, ethnic studies has been bashed as divisive discipline that creates militancy and keeps Latinos from integrating into American society.
“I don’t understand why people don’t understand that a center for Mexican studies is for everybody,” Gonzalez-Baker said. “It frustrates me to hear concerns about divisiveness. Our project is to teach everybody about this population that is going to become the norm in our society. We had better understand it.
“Even if we cut off immigration with 100 walls of flaming gas at the border, just by natural increase (higher fertility rates among Mexican origin families already in the U.S.), our population will continue to Latinize,” Gonzalez-Baker said.
She said the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is becoming rapidly more Hispanic.
Immigrants have flocked to this community with all the construction we are seeing in the Metroplex,” she said. “What happened in Austin and San Antonio in the past is now happening here. Between 50 and 55 percent of children in Dallas and Fort Worth elementary schools are Hispanic. Every day a dry cleaner becomes a panaderia. More and more of our students are of the ’1.5 generation’ — at some time before high school, their parents moved to the U.S.”
Gonzalez-Baker sees a fear of change in the U.S. population when it comes to immigrants, and she thinks this fear is fueling the anti-ethnic studies sentiment.
“We have to ask ourselves, if we become more Latino and more Asian, are we still going to be American?” she said. “What makes us American is our civic culture, our rule of law, majority right, minority voice, and peaceful transition of power. I don’t understand the agenda of these Tea Party people with minorities. But I suspect it is that they think everyone must go back to their social place. A lack of interaction also leads to a sense that a race or culture is inferior.”
Tatcho Mindiola, director of the University of Houston’s Center for Mexican American Studies said he also believes fear drives concerns over immigration and ethnic studies.
“The election of [Pres. Barack] Obama coupled with massive immigration has made white people unsettled,” Mindiola said. “They are very loud, and saying thing like ‘Let’s take our country back.’ I think this is a reaction, and there is a lot of fear. Anglo Americans for the first time see a President who doesn’t look like them, and that causes a lot of fear. But minorities are used to having a President that doesn’t look like us.”
Despite the angry climate against immigrants, Mindiola says he isn’t worried about the future of ethnic studies.
“No one has asked us to justify our existence,” he said. “I’m not concerned about it. Ethnic studies has a long history — Jewish Studies, Polish Studies, African American studies, Asian studies. You’re not going to put gays back in the bottle. The genie’s out. Women are not going to demand fewer rights; they will demand more.”
He pointed out that 30 or 40 years ago, “you couldn’t take a Mexican American history class because they didn’t exist. We had many educated people, but we didn’t have an intellectual class.”
A debate on the state House floor over proposed Western Civ requirements at universities resulted in one of the most heated moments in a boiling hot legislative session. State Rep. Wayne Christian (R-Center) (who proposed legislation to mandate equal spending on LGBT centers and “family values” centers) argued for the teaching of American exceptionalism, as opposed to failures by Caucasian Europeans, Hispanics and Africans. State Rep. Borris Miles (D-Houston) asked if African American studies would fall into the Western Civ category; Christian surmised that might instead be part of African studies. Christian’s proposed budget amendment was defeated.
Paul Easterling, a lecturer in African American Studies at UH who studies African American religion, said it is important for all races to understand the importance minorities play in history and society.
“If we don’t include African American history, we miss a big part of what happened,” he said.
Ethnic studies programs tend to offer classes in a variety of disciplines. African American studies offered at UH include history of hip hop, history of slavery, the writings of W.E. B. Dubois, and a class on African nationalist thought. The UH Center for Mexican American Studies offers courses in immigration, Latino psychology, Latino popular music, Mexican American history, activism and organizing, folklore, urban studies and film.
“It is important that students learn that they weren’t bystanders in building this country,” Gonzalez-Baker said. “They played an important part in American history that isn’t being taught in American history classes.”
(Image by Matt Mahurin)