Ethnic Warfare

A bitchy academic fight within SFSU's College of Ethnic Studies puts the future of the program in question

The difficulties of the discipline were evident from the beginning. For one thing, the first generation of ethnic studies programs was divided along racial lines, with the curriculum focusing on single groups, rather than the collective experience of minorities. "It was about creating history," Frank says, "about communities and people whose histories had largely been erased from academia. The problem with that -- with each area seen in isolation -- is that the commonalities about race and ethnicity are hard to get at. It doesn't encourage comparative work, and more to the point, it creates a number of potential divisions within academic structures over resources. The administration sometimes plays [the groups] off each other to minimize the resources committed, and that makes for a very nasty thing."

Moreover, Hirabayashi and the college were relegated to the margins, a puzzling stepchild among some of the more established units. One year, the black studies department offered a course on African drumming, led by a Ghanaian drummer. Hirabayashi first placed the course in a classroom in the math department, which immediately drew complaints. "I guess mathematicians can't add and subtract to African rhythms," he now says with a laugh. He then moved the class outside; the library complained. Finally, he pushed the course off campus.

Some of these problems have persisted, in one form or another, through the four deans since Hirabayashi. When Almaguer took over, he says, the college was "very ethnically Balkanized, very separated, particularistic. Every group and department was only interested in themselves, what they were doing. There were lines of difference within all the units -- different Asian groups, different Latino groups -- but there was very little appreciation of the commonalities that people might have.

Former Dean Tomás Almaguer says he was a 
"change agent." A colleague calls him a "hatchet 
James Sanders
Former Dean Tomás Almaguer says he was a "change agent." A colleague calls him a "hatchet man."
Then-S.F. State President S.I. Hayakawa unplugs a 
demonstrator's loudspeaker during the 1968 student 
Then-S.F. State President S.I. Hayakawa unplugs a demonstrator's loudspeaker during the 1968 student strike.

"And that's the irony: We embrace the ethnic categories -- black, Asian, Latino, Native American -- that are so inherently problematic. Clearly, race is a very problematic category in this country that is fraught with boundary problems. And so for ethnic studies to use this strategic essentialism, to basically invest in and valorize a certain identity -- that's a problem with an area of study that is so deeply rooted in identity."

Says Okutsu, "There's always going to be controversy around ethnic studies. That doesn't mean it's bad."

In the coming months, a task force -- made up of Ethnic Studies faculty -- will examine the college "not only to look at what happened," Okutsu says, "but at what needs to be done." The group's report will influence the direction the school takes next fall, when it opens a national search for a new head. One option might be to continue Almaguer's recasting of the college as a more comparative program, which could go a long way toward razing the ghettos within ethnic studies, says Frank of UC San Diego. "Our program has not had this kind of a problem, partly because of the approach," he says. "Everyone is to some extent a generalist." Eventually, though, any review of the College of Ethnic Studies will have to confront the uncomfortable possibility of the program's obsolescence. Berkeley has done it. In 1998, Ling-chi Wang, then the chair of the ethnic studies department and one of its founders, suggested merging ethnic studies with American studies. The proposal was deemed heresy, and it ultimately stalled, but Wang's argument was and remains convincing. As one Cal professor told the online magazine Salon: "What would it say about the role of ethnic minorities in America to continue to insist that ethnic studies be separate from American studies? The symbolism is very disturbing."

Until San Francisco State finds a permanent successor to Almaguer, Kenneth Monteiro will serve as acting dean. His experience might make him an ideal substitute: He was previously the university's dean of human relations and a professor of -- what else? -- psychology.

James Hirabayashi, the former dean, lives in a pleasant house jammed into the side of a Mill Valley ravine. He is now 78, and, as he says, "I'm beginning to feel it in my bones." One recent Thursday morning, he is folded into a chair in his study, frail but still quick with a joke or an old quote and still clear-eyed about the field he helped establish. "I'm pessimistic," he says. "I think the system is grinding ethnic studies down. I wrote an article, way at the very beginning" -- and with that he shuffles over to a file cabinet and roots around inside -- "in which I predict that ultimately, ethnic studies is going to look like any other department in the university, because the institution has too much power."

Hirabayashi produces a photocopied article from a journal called On Common Ground, published by what was then the School of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State. Written in 1974, its pessimism is remarkable, especially considering the relatively early date -- when the strike was still a fresh memory, and not yet a mere campus monument -- as well as Hirabayashi's stature in the field. He writes of "inevitable and overwhelming forces" and "odds [that] are overwhelming," and then, foreseeing a day when the educational system "will grind us down," he ends on a dark minor note: At that point, he writes, "it will be time to do something else." No one is excepted from blame, not even his colleagues in ethnic studies: "To the extent that we who are involved fail to recognize the fact that, after all, we are also creatures of the total society and that we have internalized those implicit assumptions in terms of which this society operates, we often neglect to question the assumptions underlying traditional education and thus, we do not need outside oppressors. We function very well in that respect ourselves."

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