The United States is burning—a collective restlessness can be felt in every city in the country. With the exception of tenant unions petitioning for rent moratoriums and fringe groups protesting state health guidelines, a major consequence of COVID-19 had been the suspension of all in-person political organizing. But when feeds began showing the video of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, nothing could keep the people inside. This was just weeks after the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and the news of Louisville police breaking into Breonna Taylor’s home and killing her.

“From the moment our children go to kindergarten, they are educated about the world of a very small subset of humanity: namely, those who have dominated, oppressed, and colonized the rest of us.”

Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Louisville were the first to go up, and then it was New York City, Dallas, and Los Angeles, and then it was everywhere, recalling 1968, when more than a hundred U.S. cities exploded in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

These recent murders by police are not isolated incidents. They are eruptions of the systemic white supremacy that ethnic studies scholar Lorgia García-Peña has spent her career working to eradicate from institutions of higher learning. García-Peña teaches classes in the humanities that expose the history of racism, laying bare what is so often concealed in our education. In the winter of 2019, García-Peña, who had been teaching at Harvard University for seven years, learned that she had been denied tenure. In response, her colleagues organized a symposium and many called on the president to change the decision. Right up until COVID-19 shuttered Harvard in March, student organizations were protesting her tenure denial in tandem with their ongoing fight to increase the budget for ethnic studies.

In the post–COVID-19 university, ethnic studies programs are now more vulnerable than ever to budget cuts. When these programs are slashed, the students who take their classes—often students of color, and often less affluent than their peers—suffer the most. This is one of the ways structural racism plays out.

In March 1968, around 15,000 Latino and Latina students on the West Coast walked out of their high schools to protest racist curricula and the poor conditions of their facilities; these actions helped to inaugurate the present-day ethnic studies movement. Indeed, everywhere that ethnic studies classes are taught, their existence is the result of student activism. So, if we are now seeing echoes of 1968 in the cities, will we also see that play out in student activism at universities?

I conversed with Lorgia García-Peña about the insidiousness of white supremacy, the importance of ethnic studies, and the role of protesting in a world changed by COVID-19.

—Mordecai Lyon

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Mordecai Lyon: Why is ethnic studies important? How do these classes affect the public?

“There are all of these other narratives out there that have been hidden, and what we try to do through ethnic studies is bring some of them to the surface and question the forces that provoked their exclusion.”

Lorgia García-Peña: Ethnic studies is a critical, anticolonial site of knowledge production, learning, and teaching. It includes Black, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native Studies, centering the experiences and histories of minoritized, racialized subjects. Given the state of our nation and our world, I cannot think of a more urgent area of study at any institution of learning, from elementary schools up to college.

What we teach at every school right now—what we consider to be the standard humanities and social science curriculum—is actually grounded in white supremacy, but is masked as objectivity. Ethnic studies is charged with filling in the immense gap left by our Eurocentric education systems.

I’m sure you had a similar experience to mine in high school of taking World History and having it taught through the lens of U.S. empire. Did you ever learn about the history of the Dominican Republic, of Haiti, of Vietnam in your World History class? No. You learned about the Vietnam War through the U.S. lens, right? And that is the extent of that history. So world history really just means European and U.S. (Eurocentric) history. Same goes for the arts, for philosophy. What we mean by literature is English language literature, and maybe some Don Quixote and a couple of French novels, but how many of us have read a Guatemalan novel outside of a Spanish language class?

From the moment our children go to kindergarten, they are educated about the world of a very small subset of humanity: namely, those who have dominated, oppressed, and colonized the rest of us. What we teach, what we think of as legitimate knowledge, what we uphold as having value, our sacred canons, are grounded in the dominance of whiteness.

Ethnic studies upends the dominance of white supremacy in our education. It opens the possibility for students to see things through a different lens and to question and say: “Huh, I never looked at it that way.”

ML: How does that play out in the classroom?

LGP: I regularly teach a humanities class called Tropical Fantasies. The premise of the class is a question: What happens if instead of thinking of the French Revolution as the birth of the modern nation, we instead argue that it was the Haitian Revolution? Initially students are so confused and hesitant, but when they start reading and thinking about it through that lens, and asking questions, it creates this really beautiful dialogue that allows people to think about race, to think about economy, to think about globalization from a different perspective. It gives students a chance to rethink race and ethnicity by not just studying racialized people as objects, but to study the way in which people who have been racialized think, how they experience history, and how they create knowledge.

The knowledge we think we have is so incomplete, biased, racialized. So when we talk about processes like independence, revolution, or the birth of a particular nation, we think we have the right dates and the proper names of the people that created those nations, who led those movements. But there’s all this subjugated knowledge that we don’t hear or read, that never makes it into the archives or textbooks. I teach my students to question everything they read, to identify the silences even in my own syllabus and in my lectures, the absences, even if we cannot fill them. Those silences are what we truly need to understand our collective human experience. There are all of these other narratives out there, all these other versions of history, all this amazing art that we never see, that have been hidden, purposely or not, and what we try to do through ethnic studies is bring some of them back up to the surface and question the forces that provoked their exclusion.

ML: When you were denied tenure from Harvard, it became national news. People of color in the academy being denied tenure feels like a frequent occurrence: Lourdes Torres said in response to your case, “It seems like every year we’re fighting another unfair tenure decision.” What exactly is tenure and why do you think you were denied?

LGP. Well it depends on who you ask, right? Tenure is a system that affords the ability to have academic freedom—to produce the kind of cutting-edge and intellectually risky work that does not have to respond to the nation, to the corporations, to the universities, and allows you to disagree, without worrying about whether you will have a job the next day. Who gets tenure, or who decides that, varies by institution and depending on who the candidate for tenure is and what their intellectual project is.

During my time at Harvard, I was and continue to be very vocal about building ethnic studies, about supporting undocumented students, about the inequalities affecting my students, about the practices and policies that endanger vulnerable populations. I paid a high price for that. I was the victim of various hate crimes which the university did very little to remedy or protect me from, I was harassed by colleagues due to my commitment to social justice, my classes were interrupted by the Harvard police on various occasions, and eventually I was denied tenure. In many ways, it was not a surprising result, it makes sense if you think about the structures of the elite university we have been discussing in this conversation. As a black Latina immigrant of working-class background, I go against the university’s power structure with my work, with my activism, and with my body. I don’t belong at Harvard and I was made to know that in multiple ways and ultimately with my tenure denial.

ML: In the long fight to expand ethnic studies programs, funding has always been a battle. What do you think is going to happen in a post–COVID-19 academy?

“Critical anticolonial ethnic studies is inimical to the white supremacist structure that undergirds elite universities.”

LGP: Well, the funding argument never holds a lot of water. Universities find money for all kinds of nonessential things, from athletic coaches and administrators with exorbitant salaries to huge construction projects. The lack of support for ethnic studies is ideological rather than budgetary, and so in that sense it won’t be any different after COVID-19, although COVID-19 will be the newest excuse.

Universities have an inherent bias against the critical work that ethnic studies scholars produce. Critical anticolonial ethnic studies is inimical to the very same colonial, white supremacist structure that undergirds elite universities. It demands that we rethink our canons, that we dismantle our histories, that we center black and brown people, that we reimagine our great narratives and structures, that we acknowledge that the university sits on stolen land and was built, in one way or another, by enslaved peoples, that the seed of its fortune is enslaved labor. Ethnic studies challenges power structures and, what is more, it empowers students to fight systemic racism within the institution.

So fiscal crises are just excuses to continue disenfranchising ethnic studies, to avoid investing in its faculty, and to keep it marginalized. The COVID-19 pandemic has already been and will continue to be used as an excuse to freeze hires in ethnic studies and to halt program development. But it is a terrible misstep because the knowledge produced through ethnic studies is more urgent than ever: it alone can illuminate what we are living through right now, the inequalities that have put black and brown bodies on the front lines to die so others can be richer, that have brought destruction to indigenous communities, that have primed us to believe that Asians are carriers of illness. How can the university consciously claim to be producing important knowledge while erasing, excluding, and defunding the tiny critical spaces where the most urgent questions are being asked from the perspective of the people living through this reality? It is unconscionable to halt investment in critical ethnic studies in this critical time.

ML: What are the consequences of eliminating ethnic studies?

LGP: Eliminating ethnic studies takes a variety of forms, including halting departmentalization projects, freezing hires, and not tenuring faculty in those fields. The result of all is the same: we erase the possibility of dissent. We send more young adults into the world to become doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople without the weapons to critically question received knowledge or to fight inequality, and therefore prepared to reproduce it. We miss one of our best opportunities to fight oppression. We give more power to white supremacy. We make the university less inclusive, less diverse, less capable of teaching fairly.

The irony of the fact that ethnic studies programs are often in a fight for their lives when it comes to funding is that universities have never been more preoccupied with signaling their virtue around questions of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. We’re bombarded constantly with statistics about how universities are increasing their diversity, how they have this number of students of color, how there are now this number of faculty of color—and at the same time these institutions have been built on anti-blackness, on the systematic exclusion of people of color, on the systematic exclusion of people who are not rich. Most academic departments and disciplines are built on the same exclusionary boundaries. And so you end up with the hypervisibility of people of color in promotional materials for universities, on their webpages, to highlight how in these liberal corporations we’re really trying to be inclusive, but that project of inclusion has never actually gotten into the structures of the university, into how academic departments are constructed, into what we read, into what the syllabus reflects, and into how we value the intellectual production of people whom we’re supposedly trying to include.

And as a result of how marginalized these perspectives are in the actual education people receive—as opposed to how universities talk about themselves—we have, for example, an entire class of politicians, most of whom are educated at elite institutions, who cannot accurately talk about race or about people of color as agents of history or as producers of knowledge. We are only spoken about as statistics in relation to social problems such as incarceration, illegal immigration, or poverty. And that’s in no small part because we have a university that largely ignores the historical, cultural production of human actors who are not white while at the same time claiming to have a commitment to this population.

ML: As I understand it, the history of university ethnic studies programs has consistently been one of reluctant institutions undertaking change only in the face of tremendous pressure from student activists.

“It is a terrible misstep to defund ethnic studies programs because the knowledge produced by them is more urgent now than ever: it alone can illuminate the inequalities that have put black and brown bodies on the front lines to die so others can be richer.”

LGP: Ethnic studies departments and centers—and black studies and women and gender studies programs often have similar histories—have all come from student demands. For most people, if they know anything about this history, what they recall is students at San Francisco State and then across the West Coast going on strike in 1968 to demand ethnic studies at their universities. But there really was an activist energy that began earlier, in the late fifties, and not just in universities but also in high schools. Like with most movements, we see the climax, and we see the result, but the ten years prior tend not to make it into the final version of the historical accounts.

The actions in the sixties came out of the Chicano movements on the West Coast, which were tied into the labor activism of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in Delano, California, and which were in conversation with the civil rights movement. It was that energy against injustice and exclusion—being excluded not only politically but also historically and culturally—that fueled all these movements. The activism of 1968 was also global: we see universities in Latin America and Europe erupting with student uprisings against repression, corruption, and poverty, demanding equal rights. If it wasn’t a question of race, it was a question of class, of gender equality; students were demanding institutional spaces that would allow them to have a presence, to belong. To be more than objects of study.

Protests and, in particular, protests on college campuses are manifestations of turning theory into practice, of bringing to life what we celebrate through our reading and our writing. Protests are important because they raise awareness, they amplify voices, they challenge the status quo, and they lead to structural changes. Protests are exercises in speaking truth to power, recognizing that those in power can enact changes if they listen to protesters.

ML: What is the role of the professor in protest?

LGP: The heart of these movements has always been the students, but I tell my students all the time: “There’s no university without students and there’s no university without teachers. Everything else you can create.” I was part of a program, Freedom University—which created a parallel university system to support University of Georgia’s undocumented students when the governor banned their enrollment—and because we had students and we had teachers we had a school. Literally, that is all you need, and then everything else is extra. So it’s critical to support students and support their demands. In some universities the role of the professor is more prominent, especially in public universities where faculty have a voice in governance, are unionized, and can raise their voices without fear of losing their jobs. That becomes trickier in private institutions where faculty governance is not as strong and where they are not protected by a union, but it can happen. For example, last year at Yale, a private university, when ethnic studies professor Albert Laguna was denied tenure, thirteen senior scholars said they would resign if the decision were not reversed. Just before the pandemic, Yale relented and Laguna has now been tenured. So there is definitely hope, and opportunities, for students and faculty to work together toward justice on campus.

ML: How does the current eruption of rebellions in major cities across the country compare to 1968?

“People are tired of waiting and have become aware that justice cannot be served by jailing one racist policeman. It is not sufficient.”

LGP: So little is different. We are still experiencing the afterlife of slavery and colonialism. We are still dealing with systemic violence against black people, against immigrants of color. We are still dealing with the exclusion of minority voices, with economic disparity, with environmental injustice. Take this pandemic: black and Latinx people are dying at a higher rate, and are at a higher risk of being infected. People are tired of waiting for justice and people have become more and more aware that justice cannot be served by jailing one racist policeman. It is not sufficient. It does not do anything to end the systemic violence, the death of our people, the inequality that persistently puts black lives in precarious conditions, the violence that separates Latinx families at the border. People are aware now, as they were in 1968, that protesting is not enough, that we no longer need for those in power to pretend to listen, what we actually need is different structures, we need to change the power structure and restore a balance that would guarantee that no more black lives are destroyed. That is the moment in which we find ourselves in both the streets and inside the university.

ML: What would an ethnic studies department look like if it were unencumbered by institutionalized white supremacy?

LGP: It would look like a group of scholars of all races and ethnicities centering the work, the histories, the artistic production of marginalized, minoritized, colonized, and racialized people: black, Latinx, Asian, indigenous, Arab, immigrant, disabled, and queer. And not just thinking of these people as the objects of study but making their knowledge central to the conversation.

If you ask me, I think that is the work not just of ethnic studies; that should be the work of the universities at large. What we should be thinking about is not the creation of ethnic studies departments, but the dismantling of white supremacy in our institutions, and the centering of subjugated knowledge everywhere, in every department. Or maybe get rid of the departments, just scratch the idea of disciplines and instead think ad hoc about the kinds of knowledge needed to answer each question—look for solutions in other knowledges, other literatures, and see where that gets us.

As practical stopgap measures, though, universities should be hiring faculty of color who come from communities that have been oppressed. And then taking the research of said faculty of color seriously, valuing it and amplifying it. That means not exploiting faculty of color by demanding unbearable amounts of service. That means tenuring and promoting faculty of color, retaining them, rewarding them for the extra labor they have produced. That would be a start.