Asian/American studies programmes are key to combating discrimination

The quality of universities’ statements in the wake of Atlanta’s mass shooting correlates with their curricula, say Charles Crabtree and Yusaku Horiuchi

July 24, 2021
Source: istock

On 20 May, Joe Biden signed the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, a law meant to address the disturbing rise in anti-Asian violence over the past year in the US.

Among other things, the bipartisan measure empowers the Justice Department to quickly review hate crimes and bring more awareness to them. Broadly billed as an effort to curb violence against the Asian/American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, the law also serves as a statement of solidarity with a community that is increasingly under siege.

But the federal government is not the only American institution communicating its support for members of AAPI groups living in the US. Universities and colleges have been doing so as well. And given universities’ role as developers of the next generation of leaders and shapers of national culture and norms, such statements could be valuable in shaping the national response to anti-AAPI incidents.

Nevertheless, the volume of higher education institutions’ condemnation of such incidents is variable. In our latest research, we measure support for the Asian/American community by collecting data on whether a school’s Office of the President issued a statement after the 16 March mass shooting in Atlanta, which took the lives of eight individuals, including six Asian women, and was widely interpreted as a hate crime.

Of the 303 universities featured in the 2018 US News and World Report Ranking, about 55 per cent issued a statement. But the content varies considerably. Some statements had impressive breadth, including information about easily accessible support/reporting resources, durable education initiatives, and opportunities for bias/allyship training. For example, Utah State University’s president offered a number of bias training opportunities and a range of lessons on microaggressions. In a similar vein, the California Institute of Integral Studies’ president outlined a number of holistic initiatives, including a virtual healing circle for the AAPI community led by a clinician, and a pop-up acupuncture clinic. The University of California Berkeley’s chancellor promoted a weekly discussion and support space for AAPI students, offered bias training for student groups, and announced counselling and psychological services for AAPI students.

In contrast, many statements lacked actionable items or meaningful demonstrations of support. For example, some universities only issued a very short statement condemning the violence in Georgia without mentioning or hyperlinking available resources for students and other community members in need of assistance. They may have even mentioned the motivations behind the Atlanta shooting as “unknown”, even though the shooter’s motivation was irrelevant if the purpose of these statements was to support Asian/Americans who were reasonably afraid after the shooting.

Even worse, other college leaders mentioned that they were fortunate to work with Asian/Americans and commended Asian/Americans’ contributions to the community. These statements suggest that there are universities still treating Asian/Americans as model minorities and perpetual foreigners, reinforcing controversial stereotypes about them.

Why the disparity in statement lengths and content? We gathered additional data that capture broad differences in universities’ demographic composition, funding, political context and institutional configuration. We find that if a university has an accredited Asian/American Studies department or programme, it is more likely to have issued a statement. Further, we find that schools with such departments/programmes tended to issue longer statements.

There are several possible reasons. First, Asian/American studies programmes can hold institutions accountable. By uniting students, faculty and staff under the AAPI cause, they exert both formal and informal pressure on their administrators. Studies have shown that academic departments and programmes elevate minority voices. While Asian/Asian American studies departments can serve as focal points for pro-AAPI activists and allies, their absence on campus can result in less incentive, ability and power to influence university policy.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the very existence of an Asian/American studies programme, through a range of educational programmes and initiatives, helps raise awareness about anti-AAPI discrimination among the university population specifically, and about the historical, social, political, economic and cultural backgrounds of the current situations Asian/Americans face in the US and other countries. An AAPI-oriented curriculum establishes a well-resourced platform to learn about and discuss AAPI issues.

Third, appreciation often follows awareness. Universities with Asian/American Studies programmes are more amenable to specific policy initiatives advocating for racial minorities in innovative and collaborative ways. For example, in their presidential statements, several outlined practical plans to work with their Asian/American studies departments to mindfully celebrate AAPI culture.

While we cannot discount the existence of other important factors affecting institutional responses, it is clear that the existence of AAPI departments and programmes distinctly impacts a university’s sense of racial accountability, awareness and appreciation. Similar departments might also help other disadvantaged groups.

Hence, one practical implication of our finding is straightforward: as many universities and colleges as possible should introduce Asian/American studies programmes. Although we are aware that there are many barrier to achieving this goal, such as student demand, faculty supply and financial capacity, we should pay greater attention to the under-representation of Asian/American studies in higher education.

Considering the large numbers of Asian Americans at colleges/universities, and in our society more broadly , the relatively small presence of Asian/Asian American studies program is concerning; only 46 per cent of universities in our sample have them. A lack of strong messages condemning racism against Asians by leaders in higher education is not independent of the lack of educational opportunities to understand the history of struggles that Asians/Asian Americans have encountered for many decades.

At the very least, universities should invest in ad hoc educational opportunities about issues facing this besieged community. While the fruit of these efforts might be limited compared with creating new institutions focused on Asian/Asian American issues, they should produce more awareness, empathy and (perhaps) justice.

Our democracy entrusts higher education institutions to seek out truth and knowledge. The trauma felt by all university community members – students, faculty, staff, alumni and their family members – across the US is real and needs to be addressed.

Charles Crabtree is assistant professor in the department of government and Yusaku Horiuchi is professor of government and Mitsui professor of Japanese studies at Dartmouth College. Their research was carried out with the help of a team of undergraduate students: Claire Betzer, Divya Chunduru, James Cronin, Katherine Elders, Chantal Elias, Mist Thormodsdottir Gronvold, Sophia Kriz, Emma Leary, Noble Rai, Taejun Seo and Sabrina Li Shen.

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