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A Bright Light for Ethnic Studies at Harvard

By The Crimson Editorial Board

After decades of criticism for the lack of ethnic studies department, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will soon count University of California, Berkeley Professor Taeku Lee as the first scholar in a promised cluster hire of ethnic studies professors. We welcome Lee’s excellent and important scholarship as a valuable addition to the University, and we hope that his arrival signals not just the realization of a cluster hire but the roots of an eventual department of ethnic studies.

Currently, a Professor of Political Science and Law, Lee’s work covers themes of racial and ethnic politics in democracies. His work provides nuanced engagement with intellectually and practically important questions. How do ethnic politics and identity formation influence the way we view the world? How do they influence which facts we accept, and how in turn does that impact democracy in the U.S. and abroad?

These are issues that are deeply relevant to our education and to our future roles as citizens of a democracy. They are issues that point to Lee’s unique personal value as a scholar, which should not be overshadowed by the broader significance of his appointment. But these issues also point to the significance of ethnic studies as a field of study.

We sit at a point in history where Americans struggle to agree on the most basic facts; that instability ripples up through any movement, policy, or ideology which might aspire to claim basic facts as its now-fractured foundation.

Only the severest ideologue could pretend that race and identity are not, in practice, significant drivers of the adoption of beliefs. This is true across demographic groups: white Americans, as much as people of color, have an ethnic identity that affects their worldview. Building expertise in ethnic studies allows us to study the role and nature of identity formation in a fuller way and across broader diversity of identities.

Beliefs in the universality and centrality of white experience pervade so much of American history, and the effects persist. Inevitably, these currents affected the development of history, government, and social studies. It is impossible to understand our country without understanding how racialized people interact with the world around them, and the histories of the fields represented at Harvard render them necessary but not sufficient for that goal.

To fill the blindspots of more established fields and correct their implicit assumptions, we need an ethnic studies department. To give people of color the tools for understanding their own oppression and historical situation, we need an ethnic studies department.

This “cluster” hire is an excellent first step. The work is being done — qualified individuals are being hired and the menu of relevant undergraduate classes will continue to expand. Ultimately, though, we struggle to understand the desire to stop at a cluster. What is a department, after all, but a cluster of faculty who have been more explicitly given the tools and institutions they need to drive their field forward?

The hiring of Taeku Lee and the promise of more ethnic studies professors to come marks an important first step in the long-needed expansion of the studies of ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration at the college. We hope the University makes its future hires with an eye toward its own junior faculty too often overlooked, and we cannot wait to see what all these talented individuals bring to our community.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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