#WeAreNotInvisible is Asian American History in the Making

This is the second article in a series about Asian American politics, specifically as it relates to protest, history, activism, labor, immigration, and more. The previous article is linked here.

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Author’s note: The American Studies program at U.Va. is analogous to what other universities and colleges usually call their Ethnic Studies program, so the distinction is essentially nominal. I will generally use the term “ethnic studies,” but if specifying a U.Va.-related issue, I will refer to “American Studies.”

On Oct. 25, the Asian Leaders Council (ALC) at the University of Virginia released an 18-page report entitled “We Are Not Invisible: A Report on Academic Reform.”

Summarily, the report pushed for an increased hiring of faculty of Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi-American (APIDA) descent and a proliferation of course offerings related to the APIDA identity and experience. In pursuit of the two aforementioned goals, it especially stressed the importance of the departmentalization of the American Studies program.

The American Studies program, using an interdisciplinary approach, “[studies] US culture and its local, regional, national, and global forms and effects.” Within the program is the Asian-Pacific American Studies Minor, instituted in the fall semester of 2005 after a laborious campaign by students and faculty alike.

In the spring semester of 2003, the Asian Student Union (ASU) created the Asian American studies committee to “lobby for Asian American representation among newly hired professors.” The effort resulted in the hiring of Sylvia Chong and Pensri Ho as associate professors in the English and Anthropology departments, respectively, and in the American Studies program.

Because it currently stands as a program and not a department, the American Studies program cannot directly hire professors. Thus, potential American Studies professors must be first hired in other departments, like English and Anthropology. While it is certainly not impossible, it is much more difficult to attract professors to the program if they must first meet the requirements for their principal department.

During the fall of 2004, after several bolstered efforts of activism by the ASU, Student Council unanimously passed legislation in support of the Asian Pacific American Studies (APAS) program. Likewise, Professor Chong and Ho amassed faculty support for the subsequent minor, resulting in its finalization.

However, the creation of the minor was only intended as the first step in what would ultimately be “a full-fledged program” for APAS. Not only has this vision failed to come to fruition after 13 years, but the minor as planned has essentially ceased to exist.

In order to minor in APAS, a student need only take one class related to the Asian Pacific American experience. The only survey course available in recent years —AMST 3810: Introduction to Asian American Studies — was last taught by Professor Chong, who is also the director of American Studies and the APAS minor, in the fall of 2017. However, due to her fellowship with the New College Curriculum, the class will not be taught again until the spring of 2020.

While the program is insufficiently comprehensive and inclusive as is, it is even more reprehensible that current students are unable to declare the minor. These constraints are doubly unfair — to both interested students and to APIDA professors, who are disproportionately responsible for the advancement and maintenance of APAS. The program’s regression is, of course, not the fault of Professor Chong; the survival of the program should not have to fall on the shoulders of a single professor or course.

If promoted from a program to a department, American Studies will have the further ability to hire APIDA faculty and add courses as needed, allowing for a revitalization of the minor and the opportunity to push for a major and program, both of which are necessary components of a robust liberal arts education.

The demand for the departmentalization of American Studies and the creation of an Asian American studies major follows countless similar protests at other universities and colleges, with its epoch at San Francisco State University in 1968.

From Nov. 6, 1968 to March 20, 1969, the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) and Black Student Union (BSU) organized the longest student-led campus strike in American history. Much like U.Va. students, SFSU activists demanded increased faculty of color representation, higher rates of student of color matriculation, and a less Eurocentric academic curriculum.

Leading up to the strike was a growing amount of tension between students — alongside certain faculty members — and administration. Heavily influenced by the BSU, the TWLF — a coalition of students of color — made a series of demands to SFSU administration, one of them being a School of Ethnic Area Studies.

Understanding racism as a broader, structural problem, the TWLF pinpointed education as a means of effecting “immediate reforms in the context of radical, long-term change.” To them, the purpose of education was twofold: to “retrieve their historical legacy” and to “contribute to social change in their communities.” In other words, education must compel both learning for its own sake and transfer of learning, hence their dissent against the status quo.

Prior to the strike, students attempted to reach administration through “special task forces” — ultimately to no avail. As a result, they began a campaign for direct action by organizing a sit-in at then University President Summerskill’s office, who resigned shortly after. While many of the demands were met, including increased Third World student admission and Third World professor hiring, the sit-in was also the first major instance of police violence against students.

For the next five months, increasingly troubled by administrative resistance and police violence, the BSU and TWLF were left with no other option and decided to go on strike. On the first day, teams of Third World students dismissed and broke up classes, and hundreds of allied white students marched to the newly inaugurated President Smith’s office. The President, whom trustees also later forced to resign, subsequently called the police and shut down campus, and even federal politicians emerged as major players in the scene. During the coming months, students endured nearly a thousand arrests, a hundred or so jail sentences, and a horrific amount of police brutality.

The struggle ultimately culminated in the first and only College of Ethnic Studies in America. As is expected, its establishment only met some of the demands of the BSU and TWLF, but nonetheless, it was and still is a major accomplishment in terms of academic reform.

Inspired by the SFSU strikes, hundreds of other colleges and universities followed suit with similar demands. The most notable protest resulted in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, which was, again, “one of the longest and most violent student strikes in U.S. history.”

The College of Ethnic Studies at SFSU now enrolls approximately 6,000 students in five departments: Africana Studies, American Indian Studies, Asian American Studies, Latina/Latino Studies, and Race and Resistance Studies. By just acknowledging the sheer size of this program, it is clear that U.Va. has much to aspire to.

A major takeaway from the SFSU and UC Berkeley protests is the significance of cross-cultural solidarity and coalition. At U.Va., there has been an enormous effort between the ALC and the Latinx Student Alliance (LSA) to demand the departmentalization of American Studies.

On Oct. 22, three days prior to the ALC’s reveal, the LSA released a proposal entitled “Our University to Shape,” demanding “intensified efforts to increase the percentage of Hispanic/Latinx students at the University [and] developing a sufficient and comprehensive infrastructure to support Hispanic/Latinx students after their admittance to the University,” including — but not limited to — the need for academic reform.

The LSA shares many of the same concerns as the ALC in regards to academic reform efforts: insufficient course selection and variety, inadequate numbers of Latinx faculty and staff, and the absence of a Latinx Studies program. Much like APAS, a Latinx Studies minor exists, but there is no respective major; its creation, however, is also possible through the departmentalization of the American Studies program. As both the LSA and ALC assert, an American Studies department can much better provide the infrastructural and academic support for Latinx and Asian American students than the current program does.

While U.Va. has an apparent need for academic reform, even more outwardly progressive schools continue to fight for justice. In early 2016, SFSU students in the College of Ethnic Studies protested against administrative threats to departmental cuts and demanded a budget increase.

The contention and complexity of academic reform is particularly confounding to me, as it seems to be an obvious problem with a clear solution. On its face, the departmentalization of the American Studies program is not so radical in comparison to the demands often made by TWLF and similar organizations. Nonetheless, any type of reform in favor of advancing the studies of people of color poses a controversial challenge in the educational sphere, collegiate or otherwise.

In 2010, Republican lawmakers in Arizona infamously passed HB 2281, essentially prohibiting the Mexican-American studies program at Tucson Unified School District. The bill saw the courses and its curriculum as political agendas to “[radicalize] students,” “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government,” and create “ethnic solidarity.”

In reality, the goal of ethnic studies is to connect marginalized students to their education on a more personal level — a mode often absent in other aspects of school. Notably, 100% of the students enrolled in the program at Tucson High School graduated, with 85% of the cohort attending college, both of which are significant departures from the average 48% high school dropout rate for Latinx students. The existence of ethnic studies programs should stand without statistical justification, but if need be, the benefits of such a program are definite and plentiful. Accordingly, in 2017, a federal judge banned the Arizona law, citing motivation by racial animus in the specific case.

While the Arizonan trial is an obvious example of institutionalized racism, more often than not, the shortfall of ethnic studies programs in America is more insidiously guised and left unprioritized within the budget and curriculum. However, as Tucson’s program indicates, the value of ethnic studies, in both K-12 schooling and higher education, is increasingly apparent.

Thus, the lack of prioritization — a matter of indifference and apathy — appears as the more prevailing problem. Interestingly enough, Asian American opponents of affirmative action have ignored the dearth of Asian American presence in academia. While it is unclear if the lack of action is due to an active antipathy towards ethnic studies or a disinterest in the topic, the silence is nonetheless deafening. The push for the reconsideration of affirmative action evidently does not coincide with the push for academic reform.

In particular, Harvard — the center of the lawsuit surrounding affirmative action — does not offer a concentration in Ethnic Studies, yet popular discourse seems to suggest affirmative action is the problem for Asian Americans to rally around. This lapse in the conversation certainly suggests that Asian Americans against affirmative action are more concerned about elevating their social status relative to that of white people than actually supporting the Asian American community. With 22.9% of the Class of 2022 identifying as Asian American, the real grievance to have with Harvard is its lack of the actual academic support and resources for its students — not the quasi-discriminatory admissions process.

The same disparity — the dichotomy between academia and lived experience — extends itself to my own life. In my previous 12 years of public schooling, my only exposure to the Asian American experience comprised of Ji-Li Liang’s Red Scarf Girl in my 6th grade reading class, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar in my 7th grade English class, and a brief recap of the First Transcontinental Railroad in my 9th grade U.S. history course — none of which were taught by Asian American teachers. In fact, my only Asian American teacher was my 4th grade math teacher. Ironically enough, I graduated from a high school with an Asian American makeup of 32.8%.

I already plan on taking AMST 3810 in the Spring of 2020, but until then, it is imperative that we fight for what is wholly ours: our curriculum, our studies, and our University.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or express the views of the constituents and/or members of the Asian Leaders Council.