Why We Need Ethnic Studies (Now More than Ever)

Bad hombres. S…hole countries. Nasty women. Fake news. Unless you have been living under a rock, these terms should be quite familiar to you (and for a good reason). They have dominated the news cycle of the past couple of years and have become staples of our popular discourse. They probably appall most of you. The news media keeps referring to them as “unprecedented.”

How did we get to this point? What lies ahead? What do we make sense of all of this (before our heads explode)? If you keep asking yourself these questions (or variations of them), ethnic studies has the answers. The United States of America is an exceptional paradox. The same bold social experiment that declared all men to be equal in an “unprecedented” Declaration of Independence, kept mum about the inhumane institution of slavery. Forty-five presidents later, and we have yet to elect a woman into the highest office. The nation built by immigrants decided to keep thousands out because they did not seem suitable to be Americans. The country that fought Nazism and fascism imprisoned its own citizens. Lights and shadows. We are exceptional—except when we are not.

Ethnic studies is the history of us. Of how we have become this great nation (with warts and all), of the obstacles we have overcome to get to this point, and of the challenges that—as a nation—we still face. By looking at the role played by race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation in American society, ethnic studies provides a critical lens to examine and contextualize what is happening right now—and why it is happening. It is no accident that immigration is such a hotly debated topic. Because it has always been!

Are we still talking about race? I do not think we should ever stop.

#MeToo? What took so long?

These tough issues are the everyday staple of ethnic studies. They reflect us as a nation, our complexity, and our divisions. We need the right tools to unravel the often-messy reality that surrounds us, and by focusing on these socially constructed categories that lie at the heart of the American experience, we can understand how we got here.

Even though ethnic studies as a discipline was born in the USA, the reach of its analytical tools is global. Race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation are social constructs, but they are not limited to the American experience. These socially constructed categories play significant roles in every human society, and ethnic studies is now an expanding global discipline. New categories of difference are being added periodically, including disability (one of the latest disciplinary trends in ethnic studies). So, in an increasingly globalized world (and interdependent marketplace), ethnic studies provides analytical tools that transfer across cultures, regions, and sometimes vastly different human experiences.

But ethnic studies does more than just provide hindsight into (U.S.) history and society. It helps us navigate the present, too. By instilling in our students strong research, writing, and oral skills, combined with a nuanced understanding of the complexities inherent in U.S. society, ethnic studies prepares them to become informed citizens and competitive job seekers. They will be uniquely positioned to enter a workplace that is more diverse than ever, and where issues of race and gender are more relevant (and fraught with potential difficulties) than at any time in the recent past. They will be the persons that have the answers; team players that know how to get along. They will be the one asking the questions that no else is asking, but that we all need to ask.

Ethnic studies is also an agent of change. Knowledge is power; the power to change the world. If one thing distinguishes ethnic studies from other academic disciplines, it is its commitment to social change. Our students do not despair; they act! The Civil Rights Movement, feminism, and more recently, environmental justice, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, are just some of the countless social movements examined by ethnic studies, supported by ethnic studies, and in many cases, comprised of people like you, with a commitment to ethnic studies. Ethnic studies is more than an academic discipline or a set of skills. It is a commitment to a life of justice, to empower the powerless, and to speak for those who have been denied their own voice. Your life (and those of others) will never be the same again.

About the Author

Ernesto Sagas

Dr. Ernesto Sagás is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at Colorado State University. He teaches Race in Latin America, Latinx Politics, The Modern Caribbean, and more. Dr. Sagás has led alternative spring break student trips to Ecuador to explore issues of social and environmental justice in the Andes and the Amazon, to Tucson to look at immigration and border issues, and to Cuba to examine human and environmental sustainability in the island. He is also a political analyst for Univisión Colorado, commenting on issues ranging from U.S. domestic politics and elections to foreign affairs.