In 1968, a group of students at San Francisco State decided they were tired of not seeing their history represented, and of being generally erased from higher education altogether. In an era when social justice movements were agitating for change across the country, and many of these students were active members of such groups, they organised a strike to demand an ethnic studies programme. Over the course of 1968 and 1969, the campus was occupied by students, invaded by police, and thrust into turmoil with a movement that started spreading to other colleges and universities across the United States. In the end, the students won, and ethnic studies became a key part of the academics not just at San Francisco State, but also at Berkeley across the Bay, UCLA, and numerous other institutions of higher learning.
Scarcely 40 years later, ethnic studies programmes were under attack in states like Arizona, a grim reminder that a hard-won victory could be destabilised at any moment by those determined to erase history and reshape it to suit their own needs. In a country where people seem determined to erase all traces of the past at the cost of the present, it’s notable that such a concerted effort is made to whitewash history, turning it into a solely European and solely triumphant narrative; the complexities and ugly sides of European history are often ignored, and history that lies outside the confines of whiteness is ignored altogether.
The ethnic studies strikes in the late 1960s included students from a variety of minority groups, including highly organised Asian-American students who were part of a generational shift towards interAsian solidarity, considering themselves part of the same movement in addition to being Chinese-American, Vietnamese-American, Japanese-American, Thai-American, and so forth. Black student activists as well as Chicano and Latino students were a key part of the push for ethnic studies in the Bay Area, and the same groups are heavily represented in the fight to preserve and expand ethnic studies today.
Some of the same universities marked by strikes in the 1960s ultimately developed some of the finest ethnic studies programmes in the country, sometimes including faculty who had participated in some of the original strikes. The breadth and complexity of these programmes today owes a lot to the students who fought so hard for them in strikes that were brutally put down; these same strikes continue to be criticised, along with the larger social justice movement of the era, for being ‘too violent.’
Is it always possible to have justice without violence, though? The violent aspects of the civil rights movement certainly argue that sometimes, concerted and carefully planned violence is necessary, not just as the final straw to push for victory, but also as an expression of rage and frustration. After years of being marginalised, told to be quiet, pushed to the back of the bus, there comes an explosion of feelings that cannot be easily contained, and shouldn’t be; that this violence was pathologised and criminalised says more about those condemning it than those who committed it, in many cases. It doesn’t escape notice that many white activists were and are the ones uncomfortable with violence from nonwhite people and people of colour protesting injustice.
It was the violence that forced academia to pay attention to the strikers, and it was the violence that pushed the strikes into the eyes of the media, as well. Striking students fought for visibility and earned it, and that forced the university to be accountable to the strikers; the issue couldn’t be swept under the carpet when students were occupying university property and demanding to be heard. And, notably, the strike became a groundbreaking multiethnic struggle, playing a key role in the development of future social justice movements.
Working together in solidarity, the strikers accomplished something astonishing and important, forcing a shift in university policy and laying the groundwork for an award-winning, internationally-renowned ethnic studies programme. And their work also laid the groundwork for more multiethnic pushes for justice, showing the value of solidarity work in social justice movements. They certainly weren’t the first to join up in this way, but they definitely weren’t the last; the Rainbow/PUSH coalition, for example, formed after the ethnic studies strike and incorporated some of the participants as well as their strategies and ideas.
The multiethnic nature of the strike, combined with its sometimes violent nature, may account for some of the sharp criticism from white observers made uncomfortable by the idea of nonwhite people and people of colour working in solidarity with each other and being unafraid to use violence as a tool of political strategy when necessary. The idea of a group of people united in solidarity towards a common goal, respecting each other’s differences and building upon them rather than trying to fold them under the same umbrella or use them to divide, would no doubt terrify white activists; especially with the undercurrent of racism found deep within white-led movements, many of which seem to deeply fear that same ‘other’ that they claim to be working with, especially when the ‘other’ is violent, or unafraid to emphasise differences in experience and background and to use these differences as strengths.
Whites are unaccustomed to the idea of having to fight to have their history taught, let alone to defend their history once it’s finally achieved a hard-won place in the academic sphere. Whites are unaccustomed to having to push doors open and expand the nature of academia focused on their history, society, and culture; and this, too, may account for the lack of understanding of the importance of the ethnic studies strike in the Bay Area, and of the lack of interest in the history of ethnic studies. This is a defense of culture, of history, of belonging, not just a one-line entry in a college catalogue.