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In Defense of Ethnic Studies and American History

Simon Balto: Amidst the recent assaults on ethnic studies in Arizona and beyond that propagate a myth that such programs are divisive and exclusionary, I now find myself seeking to defend and justify their importance, and to wrestle with their place in American history.
Five generations of a family born into slavery on a South Carolina plantation

Five generations of a family born into slavery on a South Carolina plantation

As individuals with our own personal histories and identities, memory can be both a wonderful and terrible force: in some moments we latch intensely upon the need to protect our past and our recollections of it, in the next we try desperately to protect ourselves from it, in others we reckon with it, and in still others we embrace it. As an historian, questions of memory, remembrance, and retelling form the spine of life’s work.

Where I find myself as a student and teacher of ethnic studies is at the confluence of these identities—as an individual conscious of social, personal, and collective vulnerability, and as an historian seeking truth, certitude, and understanding. Amidst the recent assaults on ethnic studies in Arizona and beyond that propagate a myth that such programs are divisive and exclusionary, I now find myself seeking to defend and justify their importance, and to wrestle with their place in American history.

I want badly to rescue them from the caricatures pushed by people like Arizona State School Superintendant Tom Horne that paint them as racist and anti-American, and who wring Martin Luther King’s legacy dry in their attempt to do so. And I wish to clarify what they are, in order to protect them from the fabrications of those who wish to see them expelled from America’s schools.

Ethnic studies have, since their inception, sought to serve as a corrective to the standard historical agendas in American educational institutions that have long adhered to an enormously white, male, hetero-normative rendering of our national history—by these depictions, ours has largely been a tale of presidents, generals, power, and progress. It was the incompleteness of that history and the impassioned desires to reclaim the other sides of our national past that birthed ethnic studies programs (and, it should be added, women’s and LGBT studies programs) around the country in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

Speaking from my own experiences in Afro-American Studies, this reclamation has always involved less (read: no) advocation of overthrowing the US government or of racial segregation (as Tom Horne would offensively and dishonestly have it), and more reading of American history as something larger than the politics and triumphs of white men. Ethnic studies urge a greater understanding of the tragedies and the injustices that have walked in lockstep with heroism and bravery (non-white and white) in the American nation-building project, and explore how a vast array of people on varying sides of history have suffered, endured, bullied, terrorized, struggled, and dreamed. Much as some would say the story of America is us, the histories taught in ethnic studies are unquestionably the story of America, as well.

Just as America is a nation of immigrants, it is a nation of stolen life, labor, and land. The United States was literally built by uncompensated African-American labor; and though we often recall chattel slavery as an ugly vestige of a morally bankrupt and backward South, the profiteers of slavery lived not just in the slave market districts of New Orleans or the master houses of Carolina plantations, but in New York manors and Rhode Island mansions.

Euro-Americans raped, literally and figuratively, the bodies of African descendants for centuries, denying liberty to their workers while crying freedom of their own from the British metropole. When they gained that freedom following the Revolution, the Founders groped at and ultimately adopted a tortured logic that allowed them to articulate their own worthiness for liberty while denying it to their bondsmen.

Contrary to the standard historical narratives of treaty and agreement, white Americans exacted a similarly jarring fate upon Native Americans and Mexicans, stealing the lands from the former by means of systematic murder, and robbing from the latter via aggressive expansionist campaigns that led to the Mexican-American War, as well as through the underhanded and uneven peace negotiations that followed it at Guadalupe Hidalgo. Without question, the United States was founded upon a brilliant and beautiful vision of an independent republic, but as scholar Craig Werner has commented, “perhaps because the ideals [of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution] are so visionary, there’s probably never been a nation that more consistently failed to live in accord with what it imagines itself to be.” In addition to our national foundations of freedom and liberty, our country has simultaneously been built upon black and brown bodies, Native and Mexican lands, and white brutality and savagery. None is tangential to the story of our national making.

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Importantly, ethnic studies programs deal in histories that are still being written, sorted out, and reckoned with, and when at their best, they may offer a line of inquiry into the past’s modern reverberations and meanings. For example, much was recently made of President Obama’s passing off to Vice President Biden the traditional Memorial Day wreath-laying duties at Arlington Cemetery, but we might also take a moment to wrestle with the meaning of James Parks, a newly-freed slave who dug the first graves at Arlington in the midst of Civil War. Parks served the country that made him a slave and murdered his kin, yet he is cast to the footnote (if that) of history when it comes to memorializing our national dead.

As another example, we might recognize the profoundly bitter irony of Arizona’s anti-immigration and anti-ethnic studies laws in the fact that, a handful of generations ago, Arizona was a part of the nation whose people it now condemns. Most recently, we might look to the histories taught in ethnic studies to help us understand why the brutal murder of Anthony Hill is not just another killing, but is instead a terrifying reminder of the historic devaluation and destruction of nonwhite life.

To be sure, the histories found in ethnic studies are often difficult and in many cases tragic ones. For many Americans who live outside the physiognomic confines of the dominant group, the legacies of slavery, land theft, exploitation, murder, and racism have left an indelible sense of dispossession and loss. Whether killed in the slave trade, land wars, the Trail of Tears, the fields, or the mines, whether at the hands of lynch mobs, the military, rogue police, or the state, the “many thousands gone” and the ones that took them have too often turned the freedom dreams of many into intensely feverish, even nightmarish, ones.

Further, the economic legacies of labor exploitation, class discrimination, and racial prejudice have resulted in differentiated opportunities and access centuries in the making. In our times, the judgment and condemnation of poor urban communities of color as being victims of their own laziness or intelligence betrays the historical facts of discriminatory New Deal and World War II-era policies that manufactured the American middle class along scorchingly racial lines. The caricature of Native Americans in historical accounts, media representations, and sports iconography often seeks to humiliate, as well as to dispel the truth of their original ownership of these lands. The backlash against immigrant workers desperate to eek out a living elides the historical backdrop of ruinous plundering of the rest of the Americas by United States corporate interests that dates back well over a century and a half.

Nonetheless, the histories taught and learned in ethnic studies are also beautiful and strong—filled with struggle, resistance, kinship, community, solidarity, and the most articulate expressions of the American ethic of “liberty and justice for all” that the nation has ever seen. Civil rights and Black Power activists of the American midcentury radically altered and expanded the contours of American democracy, exposing the nation’s often brutal failures to live up its professed ideals and issuing a set of demands to resurrect democracy from the ashes of American racism. (See Peniel Joseph’s new book Dark Days, Bright Nights for a fuller rendering of this.)

Then-Senator Obama acknowledged as much in 2007, when he described the insurgency of the civil rights years to a Selma, Alabama audience as a fight “not just on behalf of African-Americans but on behalf of all America,” and, indeed, as a struggle for the nation’s very soul. Martin Luther King, Jr. defined his life’s work in part as a desperate effort to save white Americans, declaring that “If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.”

The histories are also hopeful, echoing the dream of Cesar Chavez that “the people united will never be defeated.” They are strident and defiant—as anti-racist and peace activist Paul Robeson thundered at a House Un-American Activities Committee panel in the 1940s, “my father was a slave and my people died to build this country, and I'm going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you. And no fascist-minded people like you will drive me from it. Is that clear?” And they are profound in their wisdom linking the past, present, and future—as Peter Blue Cloud, Mohawk, writes, “Yesterday and tomorrow exist eternally upon this continent.”

Ethnic studies are thus not, as opponents would have it, forums of advocacy for racial separatism, segregation, anti-Americanism, or governmental overthrow, but they do—proudly and unequivocally—promote visions of justice, question the injustices in the world and the United States both presently and historically, and often look to prefigure a better world.

They are intensely personal, even as they are expansive in their reach and scope. They seek to rescue the past from the escapist dreams of those who would assign as dead letters the legacies of racism and racial domination, and they pursue what is best in our national historical tradition while critiquing that which is worst. And contrary to aspersions that caricature them as exclusionary, ethnic studies are, in fact, the opposite: they tell us as much about America—historical and present—as do the dominant narratives, and in so doing give a fuller and more nuanced history both of and for us all. They are not simply histories of “hyphenated-Americans” (though they are those, too), but are American history—their significance often unrecognized and their meanings frequently unreckoned, but American history nonetheless.

simon balto

Simon Balto

Simon Balto is a graduate student in Afro-American Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.