Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Teaching Race And Ethnic Relations: 1975 vs. 2020

On August 17, 2020, California’s Governor Newsom signed into law a requirement that every student enrolled in any of the 23 California State University Campuses take a course on ethnic studies as a graduation requirement. Options include courses on Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latina and Latino Americans.

All major universities have Centers for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations. They have become umbrellas for departments and centers on African and African-American Studies, Latin American Studies, Asian Studies, Jewish Studies, Russian Studies, South Asian Studies, Middle East and North African Studies, and so forth.

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policy that prevails in every American university has placed more emphasis on research and teaching race and ethnic relations in America.

I began studying race and ethnic relations partly by accident. I switched from Engineering to Asian Studies after my junior year (1961) at Washington University. I crammed in two years of Chinese language study in summer (1961) and the following academic year (1961/62). Then I spent two years at the East West Center on the campus of the University of Hawaii, of which one was in Hong Kong studying Chinese.

When the time came to fix a dissertation topic, I looked for a country where I could put my Chinese to use. The Federation of Malaya (peninsular Malaya excluding Sarawak, Sabah, and Singapore), which gained independence from Britain on August 31, 1957, was an ideal choice with populations of Chinese, Malays, and Indians.  I proposed to study the political, economic, and social “integration” of the three disparate communities in a newly-independent country.

I subsequently revised my dissertation, publishing it under the title Race and Politics in Urban Malaya (free download). This led me to pursue comparative ethnic/racial studies. I subsequently traveled to Singapore, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), Cyprus, Belgium, Gibraltar, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic and Slovakia), Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia (Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia), Trinidad and Tobago, and South Africa. I read widely on Sudan, Nigeria, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Zanzibar, Mauritius, Lebanon, and Guyana. I coauthored (with Kenneth A. Shepsle), Politics in Plural Societies: A Theory of Democratic Instability (second edition, 2009, free download).

I taught a course on Comparative Ethnic Politics at the University of Rochester in the 1974/75 and 1975/76 academic years. The timing was ideal. The scholarly literature had substantially increased during the 1960s and early 1970s with the granting of independence by Britain, France, and Belgium to many multi-ethnic countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Living in and traveling to these countries adds depth, insight, and understanding to history, stories, and folklore in books and articles.

As an outside scholar, I found that members of different ethnic/racial groups were willing to share with me their perceptions of rival communities. Most comments consisted of negative stereotypes, explicit prejudice, and harsh jokes (e.g., characterizing rival groups as ignorant, illiterate, lazy, filthy, greedy, selfish, ruthless, crude, ill-mannered, hostile, untrustworthy, and having undesirable animal-like traits).

In the mid-1970s, a teacher could use those critical ethnic remarks as a pedagogical tool, in class anthropology, to illustrate the depths of hostility and anger rival groups felt toward each other. This information enabled students to understand why civil wars and violence broke out among rival ethnic and racial groups after the lid of colonial governance was removed. The first generation of post-independence leaders urged members of all ethnic/racial groups to practice harmony, respect, and civility towards each other to sustain democracy. What is today termed “identity politics” transformed multi-ethnic political parties into exclusive ethnic/racial political groups, destabilizing the multi-ethnic political coalitions.

Today’s identity politics preclude even the slightest effort to add folklore depth to current research and teaching. The consequences are that students, professors, and policy makers, especially those interested in international relations and foreign policy, are woefully uninformed. They have been trained to mistakenly advance the American doctrine of Diversity and Inclusion in countries that tried and emphatically rejected it (e.g., Libya, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan).

The destruction of an academic career in 2020 only takes a single student to complain that an instructor disparaged a member of an ethnic or racial group, or assigned reading that does so, thereby creating a hostile educational environment. The instructor will, at a minimum, receive a severe warning from the Dean or Provost, be possibly suspended from teaching while under investigation, or even dismissed from employment. Academic freedom is no match for Madame Defarge.


anonymous said...

Nice share

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