Why I Teach Ethnic Studies

09/09/2017 01:42 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2017

I teach ethnic studies — specifically, Asian American Studies. As much as the academic movement, borne of 1960s protest, is celebrated by some, it also is reviled by others. I would like to share a few aspects of my approach. Perhaps an explanation will allay concerns, even though the mere mention of our demographic trends has been shown to trigger anxiety about the loss of majority status.

Here are a few examples of how and why Asian Americans matter. The subject should be of interest not only academically nor only to Asian Americans themselves. Among the most significant debates today, on the internet, talk radio, and Capitol Hill are birthright citizenship (granted automatically to children born on American soil); federal government control over the border; and the possibility of pre-emptive roundups of people based on ethnic origin. To the extent we care about the Constitution and rule of law, each and every one of these contentious issues was addressed in a case involving Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, or both. Conflicts such as the events of 1992 in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict, cannot be reported accurately much less made sense of without including Asian Americans. Alternately called “riot” or “uprising,” the choice of words indicating one’s stance, that incident — a series of confrontations and conflagrations — very much involved Korean Americans.

At the outset, I am clear the course is not about ethnic pride; it is about the serious study of an important subject, no different than seminars taking up other specialties. Everyone is welcome. The next book the class will read, White by Law, is by someone not Asian American at all, but writing with original insight about the color line separating Asians from whites. The author, Professor Ian Haney Lopez, analyzed two Supreme Court decisions that had virtually everyone else had forgotten. He showed how the Justices used their power, but inconsistent reasoning, to deny equality to someone of Japanese descent who proclaimed he was literally “white” (pale in skin color), then someone of Indian descent who argued he was not only Caucasian but also Aryan (according to the science of the time). The precedent, from the 1920s, when de jure racial segregation remained the law of the land, was about much more than whether Asian immigrants were eligible to be American citizens, because it defined racial categories.

Many other leading books in the field are by researchers who are not Asian in ancestry. The internment of Japanese Americans, including government misrepresentations to justify the program, has been documented by Roger Daniels, Peter Irons, and Greg Robinson. The Herzigs, a husband-and-wife team, were mixed: he, white; she, Asian. The expulsion of Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century, through violence such as lynching and mob attacks ending in whole communities being driven out, was detailed by Jeanne Pfaelzer. James Loewen and Lucy Cohen (who had a forebear many generations back belonging to the group) recounted how in the Deep South there were Chinese families who descended from “coolie” laborers recruited after the Civil War to substitute for freed black slaves.

And as importantly, I set high expectations. There are “student learning outcomes” specified, metrics laid out, and strict deadlines. Students who want to receive credit for the “writing requirement” of the institution must complete a 10,000 word paper meeting “generally applicable standards.” I’m “old school.” They are instructed in stating a thesis; development of arguments; reference to legal authorities; incorporation of assigned reading; reference to historical context; critical analysis of primary and secondary sources; the value of organization; what is properly persuasive; and avoidance of derivative work (even if not outright plagiarism) and over reliance on a limited range of sources.

My students understand that the empirical statements they assert must be supported by facts established by credible sources. They cannot be false or in doubt. Since they are law students, many of them will produce a proposal for legal reform such as a change to immigration policy. They are told that “normative claims that depend on descriptive claims that lack sufficient support are not persuasive” and “the premise must be true.” They also are not constrained by any ideology. I disclaim expressly about the very concept of “Asian American:” “Everything we will discuss is contested. None of us, myself included, is a spokesperson for millions who have not elected us and might not consent to our being bound together.” I encourage, but do not require, students to write about people who are not of the same ethnic group as themselves. Although we are not trying to appease observers who would not respect our project no matter what, I would prefer that colleagues of mine be impressed by their work.

Some who assume then complain: “Asian American” divides or is not patriotic, a charade to gin up grievances. They likely are oblivious to the bridge building aspirations of the term. In Asia, “Asians” have long hated one another, and few if any embrace a pan-Asian identity (unless they intend conquest under a euphemism). Only in America, do people whose ancestors were at war come together. The addition of “American” is not superfluous but insistent. It is ironic that the desire for integration interpreted as its opposite. My own framing is, if anything, faulted by my peers: I cannot but be assimilationist, as a kid from Detroit. I wish I had more Asians enrolled; that is, actual Asians from overseas: there are no Chinese on the roster (there are Chinese Americans and Taiwanese Americans, but these distinctions between Chinese, Chinese Americans, and Taiwanese Americans are not trivial).

Finally, friends who worry about displacement, that the insertion of Asian Americans will disadvantage African Americans, should be assured. The late Don Nakanishi, the dean of Asian American studies, used to say he had to learn to be Chicano, before he could be Asian American. He had grown up in a predominantly Chicano neighborhood in Los Angeles. Likewise, I had to learn from the profound narrative of African Americans, before I could appreciate the stories of Asian Americans, teaching for a decade at Howard University, the nation’s leading historically black college/university. Consequently, I say that among my goals is that a student end with “background on race relations in the United States more generally, including especially the struggle of African Americans for equality under law.”

The truth is I did not start out with an ambition of becoming expert in Asian Americans. I wanted to sort out a few things for myself before I pursued the profession of architecture. But I realized I had no choice, and I had a responsibility. I doubt I will ever achieve expertise, because Asian Americans continue to evolve. The world, much of it, was made by us together, but not designed by us. The best we can do is influence for the better, and ethnic studies enable us to relate to one another through similar experiences.

That is among the great purposes of education in a diverse democracy.

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