The Driving Principles of the Ethnic Studies Disciplines

ASCCC Area D Representative, Equity and Diversity Action Committee Chair
Los Angeles City College
Folsom Lake College

The founding of ethnic studies is attributed to the 1968 and 1969 student strikes at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley, led primarily by the Third World Liberation Front. As part of their demands, the students called for the establishment of four departments: American Indian Studies, Asian American Studies, Black Studies, and La Raza Studies, all to be housed under a School of Ethnic Studies (Delgado, 2016).

Ethnic studies is a categorical term used to describe the four core autonomous disciplines of African American/ Black/Africana Studies, Latina/o/ Chicana/o Studies, Asian American Studies, and Native American/American Indian Studies. Ethnic studies is an umbrella term of reference emerging on some campuses as the collection of and in some instances as a comparison of all four core autonomous disciplines within one institutional department. The four core autonomous disciplines are the heart of ethnic studies.


In the late 1960s, in the midst of the civil rights movements and particularly in California, public colleges and universities began to expand their access to communities of color. Students who began to arrive on campuses throughout the state found themselves with little support and resources. By 1968, students demanded that colleges and universities address the issues confronting first-generation students of color. In fact, the Third World Liberation Front Strike at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley pushed for the formation of ethnic studies programs. The first Black Studies program began in 1968 at SFSU. By 1969, Black Studies programs were established at Merritt College and Fresno College. Between 1968 and 1973, roughly 600 programs and departments were created.

Fifty-four years later, ethnic studies programs that were thought to have died actually flourished. The largest ethnic studies program in the country is the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). The department has over 22 tenure-track faculty with another 32 adjunct faculty. At CSUN, the Chicana and Chicano Studies, Asian American Studies, and Central American Studies departments and the Native American Studies program are housed in the College of Humanities, while the Africana Studies department sits in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Each discipline is its own academic unit (Delgado, 2016).

From the start, each of the four core autonomous disciplines in ethnic studies developed with its own set of theoretical frameworks and research interests. Faculty who began to work in ethnic studies came from different traditional disciplines. Early undergraduate programs required students to take courses within the ethnic studies disciplines that met the social science and humanities requirements. As a result, ethnic studies programs used an interdisciplinary approach to the study of people of color, not by developing a curriculum with other departments but instead by developing their own set of theoretical frameworks that interrogate the relationship of social structure to those of literary and cultural practices and question or challenge traditional disciplinary boundaries and assumptions. Many traditional departments rejected an interdisciplinary approach, instead adopting a colonial scarcity mindset of self-preservation, missing out on deeper understanding through collaboration.

Ethnic studies situate the experience of people of color in methodological framing that emphasizes both the structural dimensions of race and racism—social, political, and economic inequalities and struggles against them—and the associated cultural dimensions—literary, artistic, musical, and other forms of humanistic expression. Because ethnic studies disciplines focus on a holistic perspective of communities of color, they touch upon various traditional disciplines in their course catalog. Students of ethnic studies disciplines often take on more than one field in their studies and graduate with academic foundations in both ethnic studies and another discipline. Ethnic studies courses also often combine theoretical approaches from different disciplines in order to gain a more holistic understanding of a topic.

By the end of the twentieth century, many ethnic studies programs were established throughout the U.S., offering degrees from associate through doctorate. Nevertheless, these programs have continued to struggle for resources and recognition. The establishment of ethnic studies requirements at the California State University by 2021 and in the California community colleges by 2022 gives these disciplines a legitimacy that should equate to more resources.

Principles and Theory

Respect, reflection, critical consciousness, hope, solidarity, community, and transformation within an American experience set the principles through which ethnic studies scholars view their work. These principles are sometimes referred to as the "7 Cs", which stands for celebrate, center, cultivate, critique, challenge, connect, and conceptualize (Montano & Carrasco Cardona, n.d.; Tintiangco-Cubales & Curammeng, 2018; Tolteka Cuauhtin, 2019; Yosso, 2005).

Ethnic studies celebrates and honors native peoples and communities of color by holding space for their stories of struggle and resistance and respecting their intellectual and cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005). Stories within racialized communities of color have either been made invisible or have been misrepresented in academia. These communities often have little knowledge of their own historical legacy because of colonial or imperial hegemony. Stories are important to knowing who they are and where they come from: “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it . . .and history is literally present in all that we do” (Baldwin, 2021). History is a frame of reference from which one understands one’s identity. Culture and language are passed down from one’s ancestors. These stories are important to centering and securing racialized communities of color within their identities.

Ethnic studies centers Black, Indigenous, People of Color (hooks, 1984), understanding that cultural wealth comes from pre-colonial, ancestral, Indigenous, diasporic, and familial knowledge (Yosso, 2005). Ethnic studies disciplines understand education to be liberating, reflecting Freirean ideology. They challenge traditional notions of academia and traditional disciplines. The four core disciplines were created in part to address the misrepresentation and absence of communities of color in college curriculum, to decolonize academia through an interdisciplinary holistic approach to fully explore and understand the people. The focus is on a holistic perspective of communities of color, incorporating other discipline areas, often combining diverse theoretical approaches from these disciplines in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding.

Ethnic studies critiques and challenges white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and imperialist and colonial hegemony and practices at the ideological, systemic, institutional, interpersonal and internalized levels (Montano & Carrasco Cardona, n.d.; Tintiangco-Cubales & Curammeng, 2018; Tolteka Cuauhtin, 2019). Forms of oppression exist inherently in U.S. financial, educational, legal, political, governmental, social, and religious systems. An anti-racist and decolonial pedagogical critical lens is required to see the oppression in the first place so that institutions can address it and make change.

Because they are interdisciplinary in nature, the four core ethnic studies disciplines often analyze points of intersectionality between ethnicity and other constructs such as class and gender. While courses in ethnic studies disciplines touch on concepts of social justice, they do so through an ethnic lens. Students study historical and contemporary effects of racism, imperialism, sexism, patriarchy, heterosexism, and more. Through this intersectional framework, students develop critical consciousness, heal, and reclaim hope. Hope is imperative for change.

Ethnic studies connects to past and contemporary social justice and liberation movements (Montano & Carrasco Cardona, n.d.; Tintiangco-Cubales & Curammeng, 2018; Tolteka Cuauhtin, 2019) because the four core disciplines are meant to not only serve academic functions but also to educate and empower community activists to make positive social change. When racialized communities unite, organize, and mobilize to coordinate acts of resistance, disrupting and dismantling inequitable systems, a synergy manifests. The four core disciplines that make up the field of ethnic studies originated from a social movement. Unlike traditional disciplines, ethnic studies disciplines stem from a demand by students to decolonize academia and strive to present themes and topics through the lens of the community rather than a Eurocentric lens. Connections with the community open a key relationship between ethnic studies programs and the students and communities they serve.

Ethnic studies conceptualizes, imagines, and builds new possibilities for post-imperial life that promotes hope, healing, and collective narratives of transformative resistance (Montano & Carrasco Cardona, n.d.; Tintiangco-Cubales & Curammeng, 2018; Tolteka Cuauhtin, 2019). For many communities of color, ethnic studies programs serve as the only spaces on a college campus where students feel a sense of belonging. Ethnic studies encourages the development of a critical consciousness, radical hope, and self-love (hooks, 1984), which can lead to collective agency to transform academia and community.

Overview – California

Currently, ethnic studies is part of the California State University general education breadth requirement under Area F. The University of California has also adopted the ethnic studies requirement under Area 7 under Cal-GETC. The UC agreed that if an ethnic studies course has been approved for the CSU Area F, the UC will accept the course under Area 7.
The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office’s Ethnic Studies Task Force developed competencies that reflect both the CSU and UC competencies. By the end of Spring 2023, the California Community Colleges system will have its own ethnic studies core competencies established. They have been developed and are being reviewed and vetted. The core competencies will be ready in time for the California community colleges’ ethnic studies requirement implementation in Fall 2024. As the deadline approaches, the task force is preparing professional development seminars and other supportive activities that will assist with implementation. The California Community Colleges, CSU, and UC systems continue to work toward intersegmental alignment for a smooth transition.


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Delgado, Z. J. (2016). The Longue Durée of Ethnic Studies: Race, Education and the Struggle for Self-Determination. [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. UC Berkeley.
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Tintiangco-Cubales, A. & Curammeng, E. (2018). Pedagogies of Resistance: Filipina/o Gestures of Rebellion Against the Inheritance of American Schooling. In T. Buenavista & A. Ali, eds., Education at War: The Fight for Students of Color in America (pp. 233–238.). Fordham University Press.
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