The Critical Need for a Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES) Department

In order to understand the University’s past and present racist practices, it is imperative to create and fund a critical race and ethnic studies (CRES) department that interacts with community members and practices Black studies.

By Noah Tesfaye

In 1968, students at San Francisco State University formed the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), which included campus organizations such as the Black Student Union. In one of the longest student strikes in US history, students and community members were able to secure a College of Ethnic Studies that offered four departments, full-time faculty positions, and more equitable admissions policies for racial minorities. It was a coalition of students, their families who worked within the University as staff, and community members that led to the single most crucial advance in ethnic studies within academia.

Over 50 years later, after many ethnic studies programs have been established in universities across the country, UChicago still does not have a formal department for the study of race. Even though the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture (CSRPC) was founded in 1996, the University has yet to create a formal department with tenured positions and a substantial budget to fund this essential facet of a liberal arts education. Following the founding of the #EthnicStudiesNow campaign from UChicago United in 2018 and the creation of the faculty-led #MoreThanDiversity campaign this past summer, the call for a department that carefully and methodically interrogates the relationships we have with the social construct of race is stronger than ever. In order to understand and contextualize the University’s racist practices past and present, it is more imperative than ever that a critical race department is both created and substantially funded. If the University is serious about beginning to offer significant reparative measures for its racist history beyond just removing plaques, then the creation of a department that would provide an intellectual and community hub for Black studies is an integral step to take.

Unlike many of our peer institutions, we do not have African American Studies or Africana Studies or even a department focused on the study of race. Harvard has African and African American Studies. Northwestern has African American Studies. Stanford’s program (like ours) is currently in the process of being proposed. According to the #MoreThanDiversity call to action statement, the University was unable to hire renowned radical scholar Barbara Ransby because of this absence. The lack of a full department at the University inhibits our ability to bring influential race scholars to this institution. As professor Adom Getachew noted in an interview with The Maroon, faculty members are forced to make time to teach and work on a volunteer basis with the CSRPC, as there is no capacity to have a half-line between critical race studies and another department. Without a critical race and ethnic studies (CRES) department, faculty members cannot adequately support students who are pursuing a CRES major, nor do they even have the opportunity to further their own involvement in race studies—so undergraduate and graduate students are left underserved.

The University is also in a particularly unique position in terms of its own geography and history with Black people. As I wrote in a recent column, this institution’s deep anti-Black practices go from its founding in 1856 to its exploitative gentrification practices today. Just as the CSRPC has already made strides in improving accessibility to community members, having a full department with the funding it deserves would allow resources to be divested from campus and directly utilized by South Side residents. Thanks to its urban renewal efforts and antagonistic attitudes towards investments in affordable housing, the University’s position in the community has historically been one of gatekeeping resources; that being said, with a CRES department, there is the capacity to not only get community members involved but to give them an actual stake in this department. A fully functioning CRES department and an independent CSRPC that allow residents to pursue whatever learning or organizing efforts they are interested in could be a far more meaningful step towards racial equity than anything the Office of Civic Engagement has ever accomplished.

Up until this point, I’ve been vague about funding—in large part because we don’t know much.  We don’t know what is currently being proposed by the University in terms of a departmental budget, and the administration refused to meet the #MoreThanDiversity campaign’s demand to fund a new academic unit for the College on the study of race. What is worrisome is not just that the founding of a department may not be certain but also that the department could be created without the necessary resources to thoroughly facilitate critical race studies. What also remains unclear is whether or not this department will seek to partake in the tradition of Black studies. By Black studies, I do not mean the study of Black people but specifically the study of the radical and revolutionary struggle that Africans throughout the diaspora have waged for their liberation. It is not enough to have a critical race studies department in name but not in praxis. As professor Joshua Myers of Howard University remarked in a recent #MoreThanDiversity discussion, there is a distinction between Black content studies and Black studies. It’s the obligation of faculty, once granted a substantive budget, to not dwell under liberal notions of diversity, equity, and inclusion and merely study Black people, but to practice scholarship in the tradition of radical Blackness.

As for the inevitable critiques of the University taking a political stance in the creation of such a department, it is important to note Max Servetar’s dive into the Kalven Report along with the University’s financial stakes in Israel’s occupation of Palestine and previously in South Africa’s apartheid. There are also the very violent and detrimental consequences of the Chicago Boys’ policies supporting Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The University has had no issue taking political positions under the guise of “neutrality,” so to claim that the creation of a department for the study of race would be too political is inconsistent and hypocritical given the University’s political stances and stakes in the past.

Unlike the TWLF, UChicago is neither attended by community members nor made up of employees that have the same union or organized labor support to make as radical demands as those at SF State in 1968. Fortunately, the provost has provided funding to put together a proposal for a critical race studies department, which will be completed by the end of this school year. The faculty committee developing this proposal conducted focus groups with students and faculty, collected surveys last quarter, and facilitated public and private discussions with faculty at other institutions. The goal is to have the department approved by the fall of 2021.

I’m hopeful. I should note that I am a CRES and political science major. I want a department because I believe it would be a significant first step for community members, students, and staff to learn about and practice critical race studies on the South Side. What could a world look like where community members finally had a stake in and access to a department here? If this department proposal is approved, and even if it is not, we must continue to support student and faculty organizing to ensure that this department becomes the critical race studies program that is necessary at UChicago.

Noah Tesfaye is a second-year in the College.