We Want Ethnic Studies At the New School

October 3, 2006 at 12:05 pm Leave a comment

by Brian Lewis

We want ethnic studies at the New School. When I say we, I mean the community of students, faculty and some administrators who are fully committed to transforming the New School into the kind of the revolutionary space we believe it can be.

I say revolutionary deliberately, although I’m told that term is outdated, now tabooed and extremely clichéd. But, in my mind, and the minds of a large number of students, it is impossible to separate ethnic studies from the sixties, from revolutionary theory and praxis.

Any form of it we choose to adopt, will reflect an evolved perception of what it was meant to be back then. Perhaps that struggle was not “successful”, but dialectically, it is part of this continuum. Our push for Ethnic studies now, is a thread in the struggle that was forged to utilize and redistribute the resources of the university. Because back then people of color who had been historically excluded from the academy believed that our goal should not be to build and enhance, yet another Academic department. We wanted and want to aid and abet an emerging grassroots struggle for low income, Black, Latino, Asian and first nations people’s liberation.

As a Black man, activist, and radical. I recognize a myriad of issues at the New School, which need to be addressed through organizing and mobilization.

The kinds of problems which exist here, are the same institutional problems which exist in our wider society. Here at the New School, we deal with and fight White Supremacy, Eurocentricity, Cultural Hegemony, Sexism, Homophobia, Academic Elitism and a severe separation from the activism constantly taking place in the community that surrounds us (New York City, where struggles against police brutality, gentrification, military recruitment and more are being waged.)

Its important that we all understand the history of student struggle around many of these issues and the explicit demand for ethnic studies. There is a movie called the mobilization which I suggest every member of the New School community who cares about this stuff, see. The mobilization was a radical student demonstration which occurred in 1996. During that time, students rallied and protested around a long list of demands which sought everything from better contracts for the school’s service workers to an exponential increase in the percentage of students of color enrolled here. Also in 1996, at the same time New School Students made the news for shutting down fifth avenue with a human barricade and staging die-ins and hunger strikes in the same building (65 fifth ave.) we find ourselves in today, Columbia students were using many of these same tactics to get their own ethnic studies program instituted. Today, Columbia has ethnic studies and The New School does not.

It’s important that we not view the mobilization as a failure. Although most of the demands sought were not won, and the administration in fact cracked down harder on activists (for example, unapproved protests on school grounds are now prohibited) there were some crucial concepts brought up and critical contradictions pointed out during the mobilization. One action which came out of the mobilization which was very beneficial, was the creation of the university in exile. During the hunger strikes and student demonstrations, students set up tables in the lobby of the school and held class outside of class, a kind of urban tent city. In the University in exile students chose to read, discuss and debate the work of people of color, Feminist, queer and radical authors. This tradition continues today, through the Kawaida Café and Liberation seminars developed by myself and other students who wish to look at the works of Karenga, Fanon, Davis, Lourde,  Awa Thiam, Cabral, Baraka and many others whom we get no, or only an inkling of access to in our regular classes.

There was also a conference, called Diversity: A state of Emergency, put on by several of us student activists last year. The conference brought back former New School professors, and administrators who were no longer employed for reasons that all correlated to the to the New School’s overall push toward conservativism and corporatism. Jim Fischer spoke about the need for a student government with real power. Ahmit Rai spoke about the necessity of combating the corporitzation of the university. Sam Anderson addressed the nature of the struggle and particular radical trajectories it would most likely take and Barbara Emerson, a former administrator during the mobilization who one faculty member keenly reminded us prior to her arrival “was no friend of that action at that time”, gave our keynote address. Ms. Emerson came bearing the message that we the student activists were right, that the New School needed structural change from the top down and bottom up to address the multi-tude of oppression which still flourished. She called for a high level department to increase diversity and fully backed our calls for an innovative ethnic studies program.

Presently the Women of Color organization is active and doing great work. They have hosted successful health series, movie screenings and reignited an interest amongst the general academic community for justice and revolution. This conference (The Ethnic Studies Conference), along with an upcoming Student Social Justice Conference will also move us forward. Students of Color and radical students are also creating our own monthly newspaper called Habari Gani (what’s the news) and a yearly Journal that will be called Mawonaj (to resist oppression).

So from my perspective and the perspective of those who are most concerned with making the New School revolutionary and the liberation of our comminutes real, the most important question is: will an ethnic studies program created at the new school, solve all or any of our problems? That remains to be seen. We need to understand that this program would be coupled with all of the incredible work we are already doing. The answer to this question will also reveal itself in the manner in which ethnic studies is formed.

I believe two equally important and inextricably related factors will affect the nature of a future ethnic studies program at our school. The politics of the faculty who would teach it and the course materials we would use.

First, the problem of faculty. We have been told many times by high level administrators that although the school has hired more faculty in three years than it has in the last twenty, there are not presently enough teachers qualified in the Africana, Latino or Asian Studies disciplines to bring them all together and constitute a concentration or major.

While this may be true, and certainly speaks to a need to hire more faculty with that kind of training. We must look deeper into this issue. We know based on the history of ethnic studies and the way it exists in many schools that a degree in ethnic studies does not necessarily imply radical politics or progressive political affiliation. This is a problem because as I stated earlier, and as the history of ethnic studies points out, it is impossible to talk about ethnic studies divorced from student activism. If you say, ethnic studies would have never happenned at San Francisco state for example (one of the first schools to institute it) without the corporate money and foundational grants Noliwe Rooks talks about in her book White Money Black Power, then you must also say it started with organizing of the Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society and others who came together to demand, not just another department, but a whole school on organizing from a third world perspective. The people in power and with money, were forced to concede an ethnic studies program because their power was FIRST challenged by an emerging student movement with popular support. They had no interest in instituting such a program on their own, and if they had, they would have just done it, and there would have been no need for student struggle.

One of the most poignant scenes in Spike Lee’s satire, Bamboozled, is when the Mr. Dunwitty, a white network CEO who is the biggest hype man for airing and distributing De La Quoi’s New Millennium Minstrel Show, reveals that he knows black people, because he got a masters in black studies from NYU. Certainly, the field and discipline can be used by exploiters of the culture in various ways (The culture industries, as described by Adorno, is only one of the most obvious) and there needs to be an awareness around why the program exists and what particular needs of the community it serves.

I think the likelihood of a pan-africanist or black nationalist professor being hired at the new school under any circumstances is extremely low. I come to this conclusion based on the fact that professors with those kinds of political affiliations have left, been pushed out and deliberately looked over in the hiring processes. If a potential new school ethnic studies program is sentimental to the history of ethnic studies development and also takes into account the deep desire of many of students here, such as myself, to have more full time professors who can not only teach the courses and materials we want taught around our history, but also express solidarity with us on political and personal levels, then I think we could call that program a success.

The problem of materials is enmeshed with this issue of faculty representation. Certain faculty, with specific kinds of education have not even been exposed to the materials which might constitute an affective ethnic studies curriculum, let alone mastered it enough to teach it in a way that will challenge the student and enhance our skill sets. Of course we could theoretically just read more radical, feminist, people of color authors and in our current classes and not consolidate an ethnic studies concentration but this would not maximize the educational experience of the student. The materials would most likely be tokenized, or, as I have often found to be the experience in many of my other classes where we read one Davis or Fanon passage along with for example, a series of works by white British cultural theorists, the materials would be taken out of context by the professors and other students who were not as interested in them, or the professors and/or the students would choose to disregard the relevance of above selected texts because they disagree with the particular political stance those authors posit. In a small seminar style setting especially, this process completely stifles any hope for productive discussion and debate and therefore stifles the learning experience itself. So you see you can’t have one without the other.

Therefore I conclude where I began. We want Ethnic studies at the New School. We want an ethnic studies program that will meet the needs and interests of a community who demands it. Hopefully today and throughout this conference, we will learn more about the history and present status of ethnic studies programs all over the country. Hopefully this understanding will help us envision and articulate just what it is we want to create here at the New School so that we can take the necessary steps toward achieving it. And we must also understand that the creation of an ethnic studies program will not mean the work we must do in our schools and communities can stop. If anything, ethnic studies should significantly contribute to, and be a vital resource for this ongoing work and for ourselves.


Entry filed under: Culture, Race.

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