In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnic Studies in the United States

  • Introduction
  • History and General Overviews
  • Enduring Classics
  • Related Areas of Inquiry

Education Ethnic Studies in the United States
Christine Sleeter, Curtis Acosta
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0104


Established in the late 1960s in the United States, ethnic studies has served as a foundation for efforts to transform curriculum and pedagogy for an increasingly diverse student population. While several countries have comparable histories of work by subordinated ethnic groups (such as Maori in New Zealand), because the nature of such work is specific to the country in which it originated, this article focuses on ethnic studies in the United States. Ethnic studies was perhaps most noticed during its development in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was new. But it continues to serve as an umbrella under which diverse racial and ethnic groups develop transformations of education, strengthened by a growing body of research that documents the benefits of ethnic studies to students.

History and General Overviews

Ethnic studies is usually viewed as originating during the civil rights movement and student protests of the 1960s. However, its origins can be traced back to the works of African American intellectuals such as Du Bois 2012 (originally published in 1903) and Woodson 1992, both of which analyze the impact of racism on the lives and consciousness of African Americans. Ethnic studies has focused mainly on African Americans, Latinos (especially Mexican Americans), Native Americans, and Asian Americans, with growing attention to Arab Americans. A work about Native American studies, for example, Kidwell 2009 traces core questions, assumptions, and concerns as they have developed since the early 1970s. Yang 2000 elaborates on central concepts within ethnic studies (such as theories of ethnicity, theories of stratification, and racism) that transcend specific group studies. The roots of ethnic studies in community activism and scholarship are both a strength and an ongoing tension. Based on the author’s pioneering work in Chicana/o studies, Acuña 2011 analyzes the development of ethnic studies in higher education over a forty-year period, stressing the importance of connections between community and ethnic studies. Rojas 2010, based on an analysis of black studies, teases out tensions that have evolved between community activism and ethnic studies as it has become institutionalized in higher education.

  • Acuña, Rudolfo. 2011. The making of Chicana/o studies: In the trenches of academe. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    Written by one of the leaders of Chicana/o studies, this book offers an important inside narrative about the development of the field in higher education and its current struggles.

  • Du Bois, W. E. B. 2012. The souls of black folk. New York: Signet.

    Originally published in 1903 (Chicago: A. C. McClurg). Classic set of essays, still widely used, examining the need for African Americans to define themselves, given the devastating impact of the color line.

  • Kidwell, Clara Sue. 2009. American Indian studies: Intellectual naval gazing or academic discipline? American Indian Quarterly 33.1: 1–17.

    DOI: 10.1353/aiq.0.0041

    Excellent overview of the broad scope and core concepts in American Indian studies, with brief historical contextualization of the field.

  • Rojas, Fabio. 2010. From black power to black studies: How a radical social movement became an academic discipline. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Traces how a political movement that began as social protest spawned the academic movement of black studies, now institutionalized into higher education, showing how a radical protest movement becomes assimilated, and how activism becomes woven into the university.

  • Woodson, Carter G. 1992. The mis-education of the Negro. Washington, DC: Associated Publishers.

    Originally published in 1933. Powerful and classic analysis of how schools indoctrinate African Americans for subservience, and how Africans Americans need to educate themselves.

  • Yang, Philip Q. 2000. Ethnic studies: Issues and approaches. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    Excellent overview of how ethnic studies in the United States has been conceptualized and researched.

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