Ethnic Studies More Vital Now Than Ever, Says Historian Elwood Watson

Professor Issues Call to Action, Debunks Common Myths in Higher Education

David B. Grinberg
Sep 22, 2020 · 4 min read
Professor Elwood Watson holds his latest book, “Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America” (Photo Courtesy of Dr. Elwood Watson, East Tennessee State University)

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — As America continues to grapple with Covid-19 and issues of racial injustice, historian and author Elwood Watson, Ph.D. of East Tennessee State University (ETSU) is calling on academia to prioritize ethnic studies programs to improve higher education and cross-cultural competence for the benefit of all students in today’s increasingly diverse society.

In recent articles published by , (part of The George Washington University) and , Dr. Watson debunks common myths surrounding ethnic studies, reviews the history of such programs, and examines related issues within institutions of higher learning — such as the civil rights evolution, racial backlash against minority students, and culture wars on campus.

“Despite all the national attention on remote teaching and distance learning amid the pandemic, not enough focus has been devoted to the vital importance of ethnic studies at colleges and universities,” asserts Professor Watson, a prolific author, speaker and cultural critic.

Watson’s latest book is (University of Chicago Press).

Watson cogently debunks three common myths hindering broader acceptance and implementation of ethnic studies programs in higher education which are often propagated by conservative critics:

1. Lack of sufficient academic rigor and practical value to earning a degree,

2. Radical and angry scholars who harbor anti-white attitudes and agendas, and

3. People of color and indigenous communities who believe they are already experts.

Watson forcefully argues, “Today’s political, social and cultural climate demands the inclusion of ethnic studies programs across disciplines and departments, especially considering that students of color are projected to become the majority at many colleges and universities within the next decade or sooner.”

of Arizona State University, notes: “Professor Watson puts the politics and history of the discipline in much needed context. The methods and analyses at the core of ethnic studies are distinctively suited to making sense of structural racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and related events of 2020 — including the vastly disproportionate rate of African Americans and people of color affected by Covid-19.”

As Watson explains in the aforementioned articles (above and below), ethnic studies programs evolved from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The first Ethnic Studies Department was officially established in 1968 at San Francisco State University following a prolonged and contentious strike by progressive student activists.

The National Association for Ethnic Studies was subsequently founded in 1972 to bring together scholars from diverse disciplines to promote interdisciplinary research. These twin developments led to the first national expansion of Black American Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicano Studies, Mexican American Studies, Native American Studies, Jewish Studies, Arab Studies, studies of indigenous cultures and related curriculum (some of the names have been revised in modern times, such as Hispanic or Latinx Studies).

Nevertheless, as Watson, points out: “Ethnic studies has historically faced unfettered ire and traversed a rocky road. These are often the first programs and departments to be severely downsized or terminated due to reduced budgets and any declines in the student population due to the pandemic.”

He concludes: “Fierce resistance from right-wing politicians, state legislatures and a few other conservative segments of society notwithstanding, ethnic studies programs and departments are, without question, more important now than ever.”

Watson has taught African American Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Popular Culture, and Post-World War II U.S. History for the past 20 years at ETSU. He is also the editor-in-chief of the .

In addition to , Watson has authored and edited:

Watson’s new book, .

Watson, a former contributor to , has also written op-eds in , , The Seattle Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, US News & World Report, Diverse Education, and countless other news outlets, in addition to Medium.

NOTE TO MEDIA: For interviews with Dr. Watson, please email

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Equality Includes You

Speaking up for humanity through intersectional social…

David B. Grinberg

Written by

Strategic comms consultant for social justice, DEI, CSR | prior career spokesman at U.S. EEOC, WH political appointee for Bill Clinton | DC-based, NY-bred

Equality Includes You

Speaking up for humanity through intersectional social justice. Open to all.

David B. Grinberg

Written by

Strategic comms consultant for social justice, DEI, CSR | prior career spokesman at U.S. EEOC, WH political appointee for Bill Clinton | DC-based, NY-bred

Equality Includes You

Speaking up for humanity through intersectional social justice. Open to all.

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