Centering Race and Ethnicity-Related Issues in Social Sciences Curricula

By Sheley, Joseph F. | Ethnic Studies Review, October 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Centering Race and Ethnicity-Related Issues in Social Sciences Curricula


Sheley, Joseph F., Ethnic Studies Review


A 2002 review of the course requirements and electives of Economics, History, Political Science, and Sociology programs in thirty randomly selected state and private, "doctoral-level" and "masters-level" institutions produced 201 courses relating to the study of race-and ethnic-related issues. Only two courses (History offerings on a single campus) were required for completion of a major. While some departments offered "concentrations" with mandated content, the concentrations themselves were elective. Diversity in America today is a truly important component of social (re)organization and change and, thus, a major source of social friction. Why is it, then, that students, those majoring in the social sciences in particular, are able, by uninformed or informed choice, to complete a degree with but cursory attention to the topic? This essay addresses the reasons for relegation of diversity-related issues to optional status and argues that the situation can and should be reversed.

It is difficult to understate the significance of race and ethnicity in contemporary American society. To open the newspaper each day is to wrestle with diversity-related variables, in terms of both causes and effects, as among the more powerful and enduring social forces of our time. National and state trends and policy decisions are experienced in a variety of ways at the community level and, in turn, shape those same trends and policies. Consider the following examples of persistence of race- and ethnicity-related social patterns that have been the subject of recent media attention:

* Race and ethnicity remain linked to health, education, occupation, residence, and even criminal justice choices, chances, and outcomes beyond the effects of socioeconomic status.

* Racial and ethnic integration of K-12 schools has decreased since its apex in the 1970s; presently, 70 percent of African American and Latino students attend predominantly minority-populated schools.

Consider also elements of social change reported by the media:

* U.S. Census data indicate that, in 2000, 2.4 percent of the American population identified itself as having multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds.

* It is estimated that 30 percent of second-generation Latino Americans and Asian Americans enter marriages with persons from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

* The fastest growing population subgroup in America is Latino (1 in 20 Americans in 2000), and this fact is rapidly reshaping political party agendas.

* Were it not for immigration from Latin America and the Pacific Rim, Many states, California in particular, would not have increased their workforces between 1990 and 2000 sufficiently to have enjoyed a period of major economic expansion. Finally, consider racially- and ethnically-related social and political stresses described by the media:

* Racial and ethnic tensions linked to education and immigration patterns in California in the 1990s spawned Propositions 209 (prohibiting "preferences" in any activities derived from state funding), 187 (aimed at curbing social benefits and services to illegal aliens), and 163 (promoting English only in schools).

* In December, 2002, insensitive remarks regarding the status of segregation in U.S. history cost Trent Lott (R - Miss) his position as Senate Majority Leader.

* In January, 2003, President Bush publicly joined the opposition toward the University of Michigan's use of race as an important factor in admissions decisions, a matter that became the focus of a major U.S. Supreme Court case and significant media and political commentary and that was decided in favor of the University.

* In June, 2003, President Bush issued an executive order for-bidding the use of racial profiling as a tool of law enforcement by federal agencies, except as it relates to anti-terrorist efforts.

The issues captured in the above examples (by no means an exhaustive inventory) are neither subtle nor trivial.

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