U.S. ethnic studies and Third Worldism, forty years later
2009 marked the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the 1968-1969 San Francisco State Third World strike that resulted in what was to become the first college or department of ethnic studies in the United States. It is therefore altogether appropriate to ask: What has become of the ethnic studies project since its late 60s inception, and what are the grounds for its practice today? In the late 60s and early 70s, the subject-effect of the demand for ethnic studies was coalitional; its political orientation was anti-imperialist and nationalist. Since the 1990s, the impetus toward the transnationalization of our critical frameworks has exercised a splintering effect on the coalitional subject of ethnic studies, resulting in trends toward ethnic-specific diasporic study. Transnationalism is also the symptom of contradictory political tendencies within ethnic studies—sometimes reflecting an anti-imperialist sensibility faithful to the field’s founding moment, sometimes a postnationalism that directly repudiates it. Without a concrete mode for the expression and linking of anti-imperialist struggle, however, academic transnationalism often transpires as a kind of internationalism without political ground. Which brings us back to the motivating question for this essay: what has become of the ethnic studies project since its late 60s inception, and what are the grounds for its practice today?
Colleen Lye is associate professor of Department of English, University of California, Berkeley.