Asians are often stereotyped, and whether Korean, Chinese, Filipino or Japanese, they are called “Chinos.” This sort of stereotyping leads to prejudices and prevents an appreciation of Asian cultures. A recent speech by Asian American Studies Professor Glenn Omatsu reminded me of the importance of Asian American and Ethnic Studies in combatting stereotypes.
Glenn Omatsu is pioneer in Ethnic Studies; for over thirty years he has explored the rich history of Asian Americans. The truth be told, all Asians do not all look alike, and many are far from the model minority invented by white Americans.
Omatsu has a complex world view; he puts each Asian and ethnic group into a historical and cultural context. Omatsu sees Ethnic Studies as a transformative force that is the antithesis of the ethnocentrism that grips American culture and education.
Japanese Americans have a long history of struggle, which has given Omatsu a mature vision of civil rights. Omatsu does not dwell on the homeland – for him, the homeland is here.
Japanese migration to the United States dates back to 1868. From the beginning, the nativist reaction was harsh. In 1907 the U.S. forced Japan to sign the Gentlemen’s Agreement whereby Japan could not issue passports to the United States. In 1913 California passed the Alien Land Law prohibiting Japanese from purchasing land. And in 1924 the federal Immigration Act banned all immigration from Japan.
However, the event that formed the consciousness of Omatsu was the World War II internment. In 1942 a presidential executive ordered 110,000 persons of Japanese origin living on the West Coast of the United States interred in concentration camps.
Some Americans justify the internments as necessary for the protection of the Japanese. They rationalize that they were good sports. However, contrary to popular lore, Japanese Americans were not docile, many resisted the injustice, and there was widespread unrest at the camps. The Manzanar Riot of December 5–6, 1942 as well as the repatriation of 20,000 Japanese Americans (representing 18 percent of the total population of internees) attest to their moral outrage.
After the war Japanese Americans formed civil rights groups. As in the case of African Americans and Mexican Americans the tactics varied within the community. No doubt the internment and the repatriation of militants influenced moderates. But there were also those who joined the surging post war Civil Rights and Labor Movements.
Social transformation always comes from the left that has a different epistemological base than moderates. The left asks different questions and uses different tactics. Thus I was not surprised that Glenn understood the arguments of Chicana/o Studies in opposing the CSUN-UNAM accord.
In his acceptance speech, Omatsu said:
One controversy is happening on our campus and focuses on the partnership announced by top university officials with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM for short, to promote Latin American Studies… From my own experiences in dealing with institutions of power, I see these institutions as never at the forefront of social change or social justice. In fact, these institutions often play a reactive role to the demands for change and justice coming from the margins of the institutions. I think this is why we often see good people in positions of leadership in these institutions defending unfair policies and decisions. These can include a Provost defending denial of tenure to a highly qualified faculty member of color based on biased and incomplete evaluations by a Chair and a Dean. These can also include top university officials refusing to acknowledge that they made a mistake in not consulting in advance with an Ethnic Studies department for an initiative that directly affects that department and the students and communities it serves.
I think that students can best understand the UNAM controversy by seeing it not as one single decision but as a preview of future partnerships between officials in our state university system with powerful public and private entities. These will happen due to reductions in State funding for higher education. University officials will talk about the benefits of these agreements for the institution, but it will be up to students to analyze who will actually benefit and how these partnerships will affect students and our communities. I think students can best understand the UNAM controversy by asking themselves the following set of questions:
Who in Latin America will this agreement benefit? Will this partnership focus on the needs of indigenous peoples and poor people and the concerns raised by grassroots movements like the Zapatistas, or will this partnership focus on the interests of the elite and the concerns of corporate and government leaders?
How will this partnership address the neo-colonial relationship between nations and peoples of Latin America and the U.S.?
In U.S. communities, who will benefit from this agreement and who will be harmed? How will this partnership respond to the problems facing people in low-income communities that are basic issues in Ethnic Studies?
On our campus, which faculty will be involved in this program and what perspective will they bring to it? For example, if faculty are mainly from departments outside of Ethnic Studies, what perspective will they bring to analyze injustices, economic exploitation, and racism? How will their perspective differ from that of faculty who teach and do research in Ethnic Studies?
How will this agreement help low-income students on our campus? What impact will it have on the rights of our students to a relevant and affordable education?
Finally, who will the UNAM partnership empower? Will it empower low-income students in Mexico, Latin America, and CSUN? Will it empower the poor in Latin America and in our local communities? Or will it further empower those who already in power?
CSUN’s Chicana/o Studies department responded forcefully to the clear violation of faculty governance. It is irrefutable that to campus community had no interest in Mexico before the UNAM accord. However, the student population has shifted, and more Latino students than white students are matriculating. This surge is in great part driven by the Mexican origin population.
So the dean of Social and Behavioral Science made clear on several occasions her intentions of moving into the field without consulting Chicana/o Studies. Indeed, we were only notified after the UNAM deal was final. The administration then told us to take it or leave it. Our only alternative was to hit hard and expose the perfidy of the administration and UNAM.
We understand that these types of transgressions will happen due to reductions in State funding for higher education. Administrators and faculty who ignored brown students and the fields of Mexico and Latin America in the past now see it as their right to cash in on them.
We responded, “if you like Mexicans and other Latinos so much hire them”. We estimate that six percent of the faculty is of Mexican origin; we further challenged it, “if you say that our data is wrong, give us the raw data.” We challenged the administration to disprove our allegations of institutional racism.
Clearly this agreement does not benefit the Zapatistas or social reformers. It benefits PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) that is privatizing Mexico and selling off its natural resources, its patrimony, and privatizing basic institutions. Part of PRI’s stated agenda is to privatize public education and UNAM.
NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1994 touched off the Zapatista Revolt; it eliminated small farms that could not compete with subsidized American agribusiness. NAFTA has produced a dozen billionaires while the poor got poorer. Bottom-line, the UNAM-CSUN accord will empower the ruling elite.
Further, the deal does not include any stipulation that the record high tuition of $3200 per semester will be reduced. It says nothing about the Tseng College, a private university on the CSUN campus, and its relationship to the UNAM-CSUN deal.
Meanwhile, it will bring in more foreign students, students who can pay for a private education. The UNAM convenio says nothing about low income Mexican students.
It is well established that UCLA and other California universities encourage the registration of foreign students; at the same time they reduce the number of minority and white student slots.
We demand an open a dialogue on the question of privatization and the impact it has on CSUN students. While I realize that privatization will increase due to reductions in state funding for higher education, we must protect our field of study from los muertos de hambre. They are desperate people who lack experience or a history of fighting for social justice here and on the U.S. Mexican border. Meanwhile, minorities must respect each other, no one has a first amendment right to scab.
— by Dr. R. Acuña