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2.3: Historical Roots of Ethnic Studies

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    • Mario Alberto Viveros Espinoza-Kulick

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    Native and Indigenous Pedagogies

    Native and Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (a name for North and Central America used by various Indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere) have practiced educational pedagogies that center resistance, justice, and equity long before the introduction of Ethnic Studies as a phrase or academic field. Traditional knowledge that has been sustained and carried forward in the face of settler-colonialism provides key insight into the importance of activism and strategies of resistance against oppressive systems (Jacob et al., 2018). Native and Indigenous Pedagogies are as diverse as the peoples who practice them. However, there are some common values and tools that have contributed to current-day Ethnic Studies. Native and Indigenous pedagogies are place-based and incorporate the cultural, historical, environmental, economic, and literary context of students (Johnson, 2012). This means learning with and from the local context, highlighting the importance of contributing directly to local communities through educational projects, and it emphasizes reciprocity and relationality.

    Traditions of Education and Resistance

    The introduction of colonial educational and epistemological frameworks led to the attempted erasure and genocide of Indigenous lifeways. Building on centuries of colonization, in 1869, the U.S. government and Christian churches began systematically kidnapping Native American children and trafficking students into government and church-run Boarding Schools, which were designed to forcefully strip students of their Native American heritage and impose the use of English, Christian religious customs, and colonized modes of dress. These norms enforced colonial gender binaries, conditioning girls to do housework with boys focused on outside labor. Speaking Native languages and practicing religious or familial customs were violently punished in these Boarding Schools (Lomawaima 2018). This is just one example of instances where educational institutions have functioned to support systems of violence, exploitation, and forced assimilation.

    The roots of current-day Ethnic Studies are also present in the ongoing resistance to oppressive educational systems. Throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, the United States greatly expanded the role of public education. This infrastructure was built up unequally, with schools actively segregated by race. The separation of students by race helped to reinforce the existing racial hierarchy. This also has major implications for the wealth disparities between racial and ethnic groups. For a more in-depth exploration of this topic, please review Chapter 9: The Racial Wealth Gap.

    Challenges to Legal Segregation

    In 1884, Mary and Joseph Tape, a Chinese American couple living in San Francisco, California, sought to enroll their daughter in the primary school in their neighborhood, which was an all-white school. The administration blocked their enrollment, and the Tapes sued. Their case made it to the California Supreme Court in 1885, which affirmed that public schools must be open to all children. California legislators and federal policy moved quickly to affirm segregation, which would remain the law of the land for nearly another 70 years. The San Francisco School Board created a separate Chinese primary school in Chinatown. However, the racial status quo was not without challenge. In the 1947 case Mendez v. Westminster, Sylvia Mendez, and her family brought a federal case against the Westminster School District of Orange County, California, to challenge the exclusion of Mexican American students from white schools. While Mexican Americans were considered legally white, they were excluded on the basis of Spanish-speaking children. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed in their decision that equality in education means opening schools to all children, in defiance of the presiding “separate but equal” doctrine. In Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\), there is a video that describes in more detail the story of Mendez vs. Westminster and its significance in addressing discrimination in California. The video is nine minutes and 45 seconds.

    Sidebar: Mendez vs. Westminster and Discrimination in California's Public Schools

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): "Mendez v. Westminster Case: Discrimination in California's Public Schools" (CC-BY 3.0; Anu Mande via YouTube)

    It was not until the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1954 in the Brown v. Board of Education case that racial segregation in public schools was outlawed nationwide. In this case, Linda Brown’s family sued the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, because their daughter was denied entrance to their local school because of her race. This landmark decision invalidated the idea that separate facilities, services, and institutions based on race can be equal and affirmed that segregation itself is a form of racial discrimination.

    The Court instructed segregated schools across the country to implement desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” However, white supremacist groups emerged to resist these changes, including in Little Rock, Arkansas. Despite vocal and public bigotry and hatred directed at them, nine Black students registered to attend the formerly all-white Central High School: Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls. With support from the Arkansas NAACP, this group, the “Little Rock Nine,” courageously faced racial violence and adult protestors who attempted to prevent them from going to school. The Governor of Arkansas called in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent students from entering the campus, which eventually prompted President Eisenhower to send National Guard troops to escort the students to school. In Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\), Elizabeth Eckford is shown walking to school in sunglasses while she is surrounded by an angry white mob, with Hazel Bryan Massery behind her, shouting hateful comments.

    Black student Elizabeth Eckford is jeered by white student Hazel Bryan as she attempts to enter Little Rock Central High School
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Elizabeth Eckford being verbally assaulted by Hazel Bryan Massery for exercising her right to pursue an education. (Public Domain; Will Counts via Wikimedia Commons)

    Generations of students and activists have had to fight for the rights of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities to receive an education at all. Beyond this struggle, the schools and instructional methods that were created by and for white people to maintain white supremacist culture and class superiority are not designed to support BIPOC students. While advocates have worked to open access to these spaces and transform them to better serve the needs of all students, others have focused on creating alternative educational spaces that directly serve the needs of students through culturally and politically relevant pedagogy. This sentiment is captured in the phrase, “Education Justice is Racial Justice,” which is represented through an artistic poster of an activist and social movement in Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\).

    An artistic representation of a woman holding her fist above a crowd with the words Education Justice is Racial Justice, and the caption Great Public Schools for Every Student, National Education Association (NEA)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Education Justice is Racial Justice. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0; Favianna Rodriguez via Justseeds)

    The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began organizing Freedom Schools in 1963. Civil rights leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, and Stokely Carmichael had begun organizing voter education initiatives to offer vital education to Black communities. SNCC sought to expand these efforts and work against the pervasive educational disadvantages faced by Black communities in the Jim Crow South. The Freedom Schools provided students of all ages with an opportunity to learn vital information about history, mathematics, culture, and other topics. This offered personal benefits to the participants while also encouraging folx to join a movement of engaged and politically motivated community members. This is just one example of BIPOC communities creating autonomous learning environments that promote cultural pride and relevant knowledge and preserve shared languages. Historically Black Colleges and Universities have been major leaders in this area. You can learn more about these institutions in Chapter 9, section 9.5: "Counternarratives in Racial Wealth Disparities." As well, native Hawaiian communities have been leaders, especially in language preservation, with the Kamehameha Schools opening in 1887 to defend Native traditions and preserve culture for the next generation.

    This page titled 2.3: Historical Roots of Ethnic Studies is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mario Alberto Viveros Espinoza-Kulick (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .