It’s long past time Georgetown establish an ethnic studies program

March 23, 2024

Illustration by Grace Nuri

For over 50 years, student activists have pushed for the establishment of ethnic studies programs at universities across the United States. Currently, 43 American universities offer degrees in ethnic studies, and waves of students have demanded that Georgetown implement a similar degree. 

It is long past time that Georgetown fulfilled its commitment to social justice and matched its peer institutions by creating an ethnic studies program. This program will work with the existing Black studies department and establish programs in Indigenous studies, Asian American studies, and Latinx studies. The editorial board calls on the Office of the President and the Provost to cluster-hire a group of tenure-line faculty members in these fields who would launch a pilot program in ethnic studies and advance a university-wide ethnic studies pedagogy.

According to UC Berkeley’s Department of Ethnic Studies, ethnic studies refers to the “critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity with a focus on the experiences and perspectives of people of color within and beyond the United States.” Its roots can be traced to Freedom Schools, a form of popular education during the Civil Rights Movement that sought to provide an alternative form of education for Black people that reflected their lived experiences and bridged the gaps within the segregated school system. The first collegiate ethnic studies programs grew out of student organizing at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley in the late 1960s. Since then, similar programs have developed at high schools and colleges across the United States.

Implementing an ethnic studies program at Georgetown is especially important amid nationwide academic censorship. U.S. politicians and school boards have launched a wave of attacks on critical race theory and other discussions of race at educational institutions. But censoring the histories of people of color by labeling these programs as “divisive” is antithetical to the mission of education. Learning should push students to investigate uncomfortable and difficult histories, including the legacies of colonialism, racism, and discrimination in and outside of the United States.

This past September, a proposed Palestinian history program in Santa Ana, Calif., was canceled after pro-Israel advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the school district alleging that the class contained inaccurate material and violated the state’s anti-bias guidelines. This is an example of how Israel’s campaign to dehumanize Palestinians and spread disinformation is contributing to academic censorship in U.S. schools. Georgetown must counter this silencing of Palestinian experiences through an ethnic studies program, as prejudiced and ignorant systems of education have contributed to systemic and interpersonal violence against marginalized people throughout history.

An ethnic studies program is also critical for fostering a school environment that supports students of color. Research shows that ethnic studies programs can have long-term psychological and academic benefits for students of color who see themselves reflected in their classroom curricula. Ethnic studies can also teach white students not only to better understand their privilege, but to use this privilege to engage in anti-racist activism.

The wide application of ethnic studies means that all students, regardless of major, can engage in a way that relates to their fields of study. Biology students can learn about the ethics of medical experimentation in the U.S., which has historically occurred nonconsensually at the expense of Black and Indigenous people. Economics students can learn about the vastly increasing racial wealth gap. Performing arts students can learn about the literature and performance of marginalized communities, and so on.

Currently, Georgetown offers a handful of programs on the experiences of various ethnic communities, like the minor in Latin American studies offered by the Center for Latin American Studies. The American Studies (AMST) and Culture and Politics majors also provide enough flexibility for students to pursue coursework on individual ethnic communities through their electives, but this focus is not reflected in their awarded degrees. Moreover, many course offerings in the SFS privilege a U.S. security policy lens in their studies of non-Western peoples, which does not achieve ethnic studies’s aim of embracing the experiences and perspectives of people of color.

The largest barrier to establishing an ethnic studies major at Georgetown is the insufficient number of faculty in these fields. There are only a few professors in Latinx studies and Asian American studies, and there are no professors in Indigenous studies. “Certainly, a larger number [is needed] than an uncoordinated hiring effort would yield. Despite recent hiring successes, the university still doesn’t have a deep enough roster to build something sustainable,” Brian Hochman, director of the American Studies program, wrote in an email to the Voice. “Predictably, this has led to unfair results. Existing faculty shoulder a massive and disproportionate burden in terms of teaching and service, and vital fields of inquiry—such as Indigenous studies—remain almost entirely absent.” 

The recently renamed Department of Black Studies, founded in 2003 and established as a major in 2016, has 10 tenure-line faculty. Yet it is facing its own challenges in gaining legitimacy as a department at Georgetown. “We are [seen as] contributing to either superficial and simplistic DEI initiatives or to the university’s reconciliation mission regarding slavery,” Professor Lamonda Horton-Stallings, chair of the Department of Black Studies, wrote in an email to the Voice. Beyond gaining institutional legitimacy, Black studies continues to face challenges in hiring, space issues, and a lack of library materials.

One way the university has considered alleviating the challenges associated with creating new departments is by integrating new ethnic studies fields, such as Asian American Studies, within the AMST program. This would serve as a stepping stone to a larger research and teaching program in these fields. “But the existing structure and orientation of AMST should not determine the eventual shape that ethnic studies takes on,” Hochman wrote in an email to the Voice. While housing ethnic studies within AMST may provide momentary institutional stability, an ethnic studies program should exist independently in the long term.

The President and Provost must coordinate a cluster-hire of tenured faculty in ethnic studies and related fields. By centering the lived experiences of people of color, ethnic studies embraces an educational pedagogy that resists structures of oppression and exploitation. Investing in ethnic studies at Georgetown is essential for recognizing knowledge and epistemologies outside the white, Eurocentric norm. 


Editorial Board
The Editorial Board is the official opinion of the Georgetown Voice. Its current composition can be found on the masthead. The Board strives to publish critical analyses of events at both Georgetown and in the wider D.C. community. We welcome everyone from all backgrounds and experience levels to join us!

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D. Wolf

How about Irish Studies?