Ethnic Studies: Looking Back; Looking Forward

Randy Beach, Southwestern College, ASCCC Curriculum Committee
Michelle Bean, ASCCC At-Large Representative
Manuel Vélez, ASCCC South Representative

With the implementation of Assembly Bill 1460 (Weber, 2020), community college
faculty are looking to system leaders for guidance. California State University’s general education breadth policy, formerly titled Executive Order 1100,[1] and the Guiding Notes for GE Course Review [2] provide details related to the new CSU General Education Area F, while the CSU Chancellor’s Office has provided a revised ethnic studies FAQs document.[3] While these details help to inform conversations, many colleges and faculty can also benefit from a historical perspective around the ethnic studies discipline as well as implementation guidance.


Since its inception in the late 1960s, the ethnic studies curriculum has rejected the historical typecasting of people of color as nameless side-players or victims of imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and white supremacy. Rather, ethnic studies frames people of color as agents of change and producers of knowledge, with rich intellectual traditions rooted in cultural practices, while challenging Eurocentrism within higher education. Diverse histories, experiences, and theoretical frameworks are valued, debated, and expanded in all sectors of society.

Students have been at the front of the demand for ethnic studies since as long ago as late 1966, when black students at San Francisco State College called for a comprehensive and culturallyresponsive black studies department. In November 1968, after two years of administrative inaction, black students, staff, teachers, and administrators went on strike, and the Black Student Union demanded a new Black Studies department with twenty full-time positions. The strike began on November 6 and within two days was endorsed by a coalition of Black, brown, Native American, and Asian-American students who had organized the Third World Liberation Front in the spring of 1967. The Third World Liberation Front added demands, including “a call for a School of Ethnic Studies, which would encompass the study of other racially oppressed groups” (Biondi, 2012, p.56).

The coalition groups argued that the college curriculum lacked relevance to their experience and histories as people of color in the United States. Students boldly argued against institutionalized racism and inequalities and condemned curriculum that promoted the “white savior” narrative that relegated “Third World peoples” to “faceless, dumb, creatures” who are acted upon rather than being “actors and doers who have played vital roles in shaping the course of American history” (Murase, 1976, p. 206). Students at SFSC rallied for increased funding and support for ethnic studies, for increased enrollment of students of color, for an education that reflected their history and experiences as people of color, and for an education that allowed them to serve their communities. The strike ended on March 20, 1969. The administration created a Black studies department and established a pioneering School of Ethnic Studies, later renamed the College of Ethnic Studies after expanding to include programs in Chicano, Asian-American, and Native American studies.


The year 2020 was a time of awakening to issues of race and inequity, as college faculty engaged in racial equity discussions and rediscovered the value of the ethnic studies discipline. Many positive pedagogical and practical effects support the proliferation of ethnic studies curriculum and graduation requirements. Ethnic studies courses bring to the forefront the complete histories of historically-marginalized groups that were overlooked or hidden, and students from all backgrounds who take ethnic studies courses are better equipped for real world diversity.

Approximately 80,000 community college students transfer to a CSU each year (California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, n.d.). Expanding the ethnic studies curriculum improves student transfer, provides courses at a lower cost, and reduces unit accumulation by giving students the opportunity to take a course to fulfill the ethnic studies requirement at the lower division. In addition, emphasizing culturally-relevant curriculum at the lowerdivision
opens new doors of possibility for future study for all students, whatever the students’ educational and career goals may be.

Currently, Title 5 §55063, which contains the minimum requirements for the associate degree, does not include ethnic studies as a separate category or area, though the California Community Colleges Curriculum Committee is discussing revisions and expects to put forth draft language in spring 2021. At the Fall 2020 ASCCC Plenary Session, delegates passed two resolutions—9.04 and 9.05—in support of an ethnic studies graduation requirement. The resolutions define ethnic studies as an interdisciplinary and comparative study of race and ethnicity with special focus on four historically defined racialized core groups—Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latina/o Americans—offered through various disciplines including ethnic studies, Chicana and Chicano studies, Latina and Latino studies, African-American studies, Black studies, Asian-American studies, Native-American studies, Africana studies, Mexican-American studies, indigenous studies, Filipino studies, La Raza studies, and Central American studies.[5] The resolutions call for the ASCCC to work with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to support an ethnic studies graduation requirement while signaling strong support for ethnic studies as an essential curriculum.

Locally, community college articulation officers have submitted existing courses for review by CSU for consideration to meet the CSU Area F general education requirement. Faculty have begun revising and creating ethnic studies curriculum to meet the demands of CSU transfer students and any current or proposed local requirements for their local associate’s degrees. In addition, for many students, cross-listed or dual designator courses—identical course outlines with different course prefixes—will play a major role as colleges look to provide students with options to satisfy the CSU requirement prior to transfer while discussions begin around adopting an ethnic studies course prefix. Currently, course prefixes or designators—e.g. MAS for Mexican-American studies—vary at colleges throughout the system. Most colleges have not created an ethnic studies prefix, a component that the CSU will be looking for.

A proactive way to begin the necessary conversations is with the idea of a culturally competent curriculum, either as a pedagogical choice supported by professional development for teaching and assessment methods, or as a requirement for the course outline of record. In addition, local academic senate leaders and faculty should re-acquaint themselves with standards for placing courses into disciplines[6] and the minimum qualifications for teaching in a discipline as explained in the Minimum Qualifications for Faculty and Administrators in California Community Colleges Handbook, colloquially called the Disciplines List.[7] Unfortunately, such discussions are hampered by the lack of ethnic studies faculty employed throughout the system, even though the Disciplines List has well-established minimum qualifications for ethnic studies faculty. However, the focus of the CSU’s ethnic studies core competencies on the four historically-marginalized groups creates the opportunity for community colleges to address the diminishment members of these groups have faced by encouraging hiring of ethnic studies faculty.

Faculty leaders should also review how their colleges allow a single course to meet multiple requirements for earning an associate’s degree, a practice often referred to as double-counting. Title 5 §55063 states that a single course may not be used to satisfy more than one general education requirement; however, a single course may be an option in more than one general education area. In addition, the same Title 5 section indicates that whether a student can double count a single course for more than one degree requirement other than general education “is a matter for each college to determine.” For example, College A may allow an “Introduction to Biology” course to fulfill both the natural sciences requirement and a requirement in the Biology ADT, while College B might not allow that double counting. This permissive language opens the door to college districts interpreting this language differently, which creates equity issues for students.


Local efforts to make progress in matters related to ethnic studies should start in the classroom with faculty looking for ways to infuse elements that emphasize the full experience of people of color in their disciplines. Numerous presentations and many Rostrum articles can be found on the ASCCC website to provide faculty with inspiration to make a shift to a more culturallyrelevant curriculum through an equity lens.

Academic senates can also begin to work toward progress in this area. Local senate presidents or curriculum chairs can agendize conversations using AB 1460 or the ASCCC resolutions as a beginning place. These bodies can discuss questions such as what the impact would be of adding an ethnic studies general education requirement to the local associate’s degree, what the impact of a graduation competency might be, and what might be the result of infusing cultural competency into course outlines.

Definition of terms is also important. Colleges should agree on definitions of terms like “culturally competent” and develop ways to apply that definition in policy and in the classroom. They should also review local policies and procedures for hurdles. The Chancellor’s Office has developed a “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Glossary of Terms” to help support local discussions.[8]

Finally, interested faculty should seek out like-minded individuals with whom they can explore and pursue progress in this area. The saying “work with the willing” is crucial for the courageous conversations needed to add cultural competency and ethnic studies elements into the curriculum. Organizers might host book clubs on seminal texts in the field of ethnic studies or race or provide professional development opportunities for infusing cultural responsiveness or antiracism into the classroom. Attendees can then be invited to participate in further dialog. Local leaders and other faculty need to be identified to champion and advocate for a culturally competent curriculum.


Biondi, M. (2012). The Black Revolution on Campus. Berkeley: University of California Press.

California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. (n.d.) Transfer. Retrieved from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office website:

Murase, M. (1976). Ethnic Studies and Higher Education for Asian Americans. In E. Gee (Ed.) Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America. Los Angeles: University of California, 1976.

1. The full CSU GE Breath requirements are available at
2. The Guiding Notes for General Education Course Review are available at
3. The CSU FAQ document is available at
4. This section is adapted from “Our Call to Action: Ethnic Studies and the San Diego Community College District” by Candace Katungi, Ph.D. and Gloria Kim, Ph.D.
5. The text of the resolutions may be found at
6. For further information on this topic, see the presentation “Assigning Courses to Disciplines” from the 2020 ASCCC Curriculum Institute, available at, and the September 2016 Rostrum article by John Freitas titled “Who Gets to Teach That Course? The Importance of Assigning Courses to Disciplines,” available at
7. The current document is available at
8. “The glossary is available at

The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.