#FightforAAS: Asian American Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Higher Education in a Trump Presidency

If ethnic studies is dangerous, I want to define safety on my own terms and on my communities’ terms.

In 2006, the Asian American Studies Program (AASP) at Hunter College was directorless, unable to grant minors to students, budgetless, and effectively under threat of being cut by the Hunter College administration led by President Jennifer J. Raab. A group of students, upset at being unable to minor in their choice of study and at the unchanging circumstances from one semester to the next, gathered and formed the Coalition for the Revitalization of Asian American Studies at Hunter (CRAASH). Through their efforts mobilizing students nationwide and garnering media attention, the current director of the AASP, Jennifer Hayashida, was hired, allowing the AASP to grant minors. Ten years later, the program remains the only one of its kind within the City University of New York system and offers more courses on Asian America than private universities in the city, including New York University and Columbia University. At a school with a student body that is nearly 30% Asian/Asian American and in one of the cities with the largest Asian American populations, the AASP’s presence is significant and necessary. The number of students minoring in Asian American Studies is steadily increasing. In 2015, the AASP received a $104,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to teach a summer seminar on Asian American communities, literature, and film to K-12 teachers from around the country. This year, a donation from a Hunter College alumnus allowed the AASP to begin offering scholarships and grants to students.

However, despite the incredible success of the program due to the contributions of the director, faculty, students, and allies, the AASP is in many ways where it was ten years ago in terms of administrative support. The program, established in 1993 through faculty and student struggle, is still only able to offer a minor and has only one full-time, non-tenure-track faculty member who directs the program; all other faculty are adjuncts. The lack of a tenured line for the director places the program in a precarious position each time the director’s contract is up for renewal and puts in question the initial investment in the program’s longevity on the part of the administration upon hiring the director in 2009.

CRAASH released a petition and list of demands in August of 2016 including calling for the creation of an Asian American Studies Department, which would house five full-time faculty members and offer an Asian American Studies major. CRAASH presented this petition and a report on the state of Asian American Studies at Hunter at a Hunter College Senate meeting in September. At this meeting, President Raab made an announcement unbeknownst to CRAASH members or AASP faculty stating the AASP would be moved from the School of Arts and Sciences to directly under the Provost’s Office. A number of faculty members in the audience voiced their concern over this change, calling for “clarity” as to why Asian American Studies, an interdisciplinary field which critically examines Asian American history, communities, and cultural production, was being taken out of Arts and Sciences. There is no better description of the relationship between Hunter College and Asian American Studies than the fact that on the day of the Senate meeting, the AASP received a $1.7M grant from the Department of Education to support academic programs, student advising, and mental health services for high-need Asian Pacific Islander students and the day following the Senate meeting, the director of the program was told her contract would not be renewed and a search for a new director would begin immediately. The administration has new plans for the AASP, which are difficult to understand because they are taking place without the involvement or input of any AASP faculty or students. However, President Raab has indicated building closer relationships between the program and the professional schools, which I fear sounds like a neoliberal revision to the critical work of Asian American Studies.

I am writing about what is happening at Hunter College to talk about the importance of Asian American Studies, ethnic studies, and the role of higher education more broadly at a time when our nation has just elected into its highest office a demagogue who ran on a platform of explicit racism, xenophobia, and sexism.

In 1968, a coalition of student groups formed the Third World Liberation Front and held the longest student strike in U.S. history, lasting five months, at San Francisco State University which led to the establishment of the first College of Ethnic Studies one year later. In a country of immigrants occupying stolen Native lands and in an increasingly global era, American history is the history of ethnic communities. Ethnic studies challenges whitewashed education and encourages students to think critically about national identity and the American national project. Ethnic studies teaches injustices as part of a continuum of history, rather than as the exception and is crucial for providing context at a time when supporters of President-elect Donald Trump are citing the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II as a “precedent” for a Muslim registry. In a conversation CRAASH participated in moderated by Trinity College professor Vijay Prashad, Prashad called ethnic studies “a subset of anti-racist studies.” Yet, ethnic studies, much like people of color in this country, is constantly trying to defend its right to exist. Ethnic studies is powerful because it challenges the kumbaya multicultural narrative the nation loves to tell about itself while revealing the shared histories of oppression between racialized groups, thereby building a framework for solidarity in movement building. And it is because I believe in the power of ethnic studies and political education that I fear for its future.

Throughout his campaign, Trump named political correctness as a problem in our country. To his supporters, his xenophobic rhetoric against immigrants and refugees, anti-Muslim statements, and mocking of people with disabilities represents a rejection of a culture of being PC. What white supremacists and the right have identified as political correctness, however, is actually just their politically correct way of saying that it is becoming harder to publicly express racist, homophobic, and sexist bigotry. The war on political correctness is a war on any attempt to make America a country that is not built on white supremacist heteropatriarchy. The university has always been central to conversations on political correctness ever since classrooms became a space to meet people from different backgrounds and challenge world views. Earlier this year, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago wrote in a letter to incoming students, “We do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” These remarks represent the same logic around “political correctness” and are a dangerous and ignorant misinterpretation of what safe spaces are. Safe spaces, as the name suggests, are environments of respect and accountability. It is possible to have intellectual thinking, conversation, and debate in a safe space; in fact, striving to create these spaces is the work of ethnic studies. But, let’s be clear- in order to create safe spaces, some things are off limits to say. And this fact does not turn safe spaces into a debate about free speech, but rather is a recognition of the fact that the right to speak is just as important as the right to exist freely and safely from hate speech.

We are now seeing the latest iteration of the war on political correctness and safe spaces. A new website calling itself the Professor Watchlist, a project of Turning Point USA which first appeared on November 21, “expose[s]” nearly 200 college professors for “discriminat[ing] against conservative students and advanc[ing] leftist propaganda in the classroom.” As George Yancy, a professor on the list, pointed out in his recent New York Times article defiantly titled, “I am a Dangerous Professor,” the watchlist is reminiscent of McCarthyism, Cointelpro, and panoptic forms of governance. He writes, “The list is not simply designed to get others to spy on us, to out us, but to install forms of psychological self-policing to eliminate thoughts, pedagogical approaches and theoretical orientations that it defines as subversive.” Lest we forget the history of pathologizing resistance and protest, specifically in an effort to suppress the Black radical tradition, just this past month Kevin Alfred, a Rutgers professor who teaches Women and Gender Studies’ courses including one on politicizing Beyoncé, was taken to Bellevue Hospital for a psychiatric examination after a patrol officer took an anonymous complaint about his class. What begins as misnaming something as “political correctness” becomes mocking safe spaces becomes the surveillance and policing of democratic thought.

The encroachment of neoliberalism and the election of Donald Trump has dangerous implications for higher education and what the role of the classroom ought to be. We must defend the university as a place to think critically about the nation state, whiteness, power, and oppression, now more than ever. Ethnic studies continues to be a discipline that facilitates these discussions and is a bold reminder that words and history matter at a time when the President-elect has run on a campaign of anti-intellectualism and white supremacy and won. As Yancy writes, “If it is dangerous to teach my students to love their neighbors, to think and rethink constructively and ethically about who their neighbors are, and how they have been taught to see themselves as disconnected and neoliberal subjects, then, yes, I am dangerous, and what I teach is dangerous.” Ethnic studies is dangerous, but I want to define safety on my own terms and on my communities’ terms. Ethnic studies is a home for students of color in a world that is so violently trying to erase their existence. It is a home that reminds us that we have been through this before and we have the tools to resist and build our own futurities. As the Hunter College Asian American Studies Program faces its future and as syllabi are submitted for the next semester, I ask the administration whose safety they are trying to protect?

SFSU strike leaders Richard Aoki (Asian American Political Alliance), Charlie Brown (African American Student Union) and Manuel Delgado (Mexican American Student Confederation)

Note: I organize on campus with the Coalition for the Revitalization of Asian American Studies at Hunter. Asian American Studies at Hunter College encompasses courses on Asian diasporas within the United States, including Filipino Americans, South Asian Americans, and the Muslim diaspora.