New Department of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies invites students to think critically about race during a time of global reckoning with racism

The program casts a wide net with courses that touch on a range of topics and issues—from poverty and public policy to ethnic studies in K-12 public education to the history of jazz in America to comparative settler colonial critique

Professor Nick Mitchell teaching a class.
Associate Professor Nick Mitchell teaching Critical Race and Ethnic Studies: An Introduction in 2018. The class examines the concept of race, followed by an investigation of colorblindness, multiculturalism, and post-racialism.

While the pathway to creating a Department of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at UC Santa Cruz was a challenging decades-long effort, its arrival couldn’t have come at a more important time as legislators are pushing hard against discussions of race taking place in classrooms around the country.

“CRES developed out of student struggle, and in our course topics, our teaching methods, and our degree programs, we hold ourselves accountable to students who for decades have called for deep, nuanced approaches to race in the classroom,” said Christine Hong, chair of the department.

CRES was first introduced as a degree program in 2014 and, thanks to its rapid growth and strong faculty and student advocacy, gained departmental status in 2021.

Mary “Miki” Arlen (Porter ‘21) came to UC Santa Cruz to study literature, and decided in her junior year to add critical race and ethnic studies as a second major after learning about the program from Hong.

“Critical race studies and critical race theory is recognizing that we don’t have as broad a perspective in the narrative of the United States,” Arlen said. “It really is a shifting of perspective—of understanding our own positionality in the classroom and in the world, and giving a space to those voices that aren’t necessarily heard all the time in history classrooms.”

Andrea Duran, CRES major and peer advisor, stated, “CRES gave me a scholastic home to explore difficult and oftentimes painful questions relating to life in this settler colonial society. My classmates and teachers created safe spaces to expand and honor my ‘radical’ beliefs; our classrooms became places to feel angry, desperate, hopeful, and self-determined.”

The CRES program casts a wide net with courses that touch on a range of topics and issues from poverty and public policy to ethnic studies in K-12 public education to the history of jazz in America to comparative settler colonial critique. Popular courses include Racial Capitalism, Black Queer Culture, Indigenous Feminisms, and Pilipinx Historical Dialogue.

“It feels great that CRES is something that has galvanized students and faculty,” said Xavier Livermon, associate professor in CRES and Black Studies director, “and that the administration listened to their concerns and has been willing to put the resources behind trying to make this happen.”

While the development of this program feels timely considering ongoing discussions about critical race theory and broad-based organizing against racial violence in our current moment, the seeds for CRES were planted with UC Santa Cruz’s first graduating class in 1969.

“Students took over the commencement stage and turned their backs to the audience in protest against the violence of the U.S. military in Vietnam,” said Hong, associate professor of CRES and literature. “But they also turned their backs to the audience protesting the racism of this campus and calling for ethnic studies.”

In the years since that moment, students have raised their voices to demand for a more diverse range of classes at UC Santa Cruz. In 1981, 600 students marched to the chancellor’s office calling for the hiring of professors for Asian American Studies and Native American Studies, which resulted in two tenure-track hires. A few years later, students successfully petitioned for the creation of the Ethnicity and Race general education requirement.

As the baton continued to be passed along to incoming students pushing for radical change within UC Santa Cruz, an autonomous student organization with ties to E2 and other organizing spaces, along with some key faculty members like Hong and History of Consciousness professor Eric Porter, began a serious push for an Ethnic Studies program in 2011.

“We began meeting initially about once a week,” Hong said. “Then it became every single day, and sometimes more than once a day. We fought at a time when the landscape had totally shifted, and we were on the heels of a major recession that resulted in budget cuts throughout the university.”

Their efforts were ultimately successful with the introduction of a CRES degree program. Through the dedication and hard work of staff and faculty, the major was able to hit growth targets—and it has proven to be the fastest growing major in the division.

The student interest has enabled the department to expand as well. In just a few years, its faculty numbers have doubled as more chose to affiliate themselves with the department. CRES added the Black Studies minor, working closely with the Black Student Union to develop the program and consulting with them on Black studies faculty hires. CRES is also the first unit outside of the STEM fields to include a 4+1 pathway for students to earn an Education master’s degree and teaching credential.

“The 4+1 was realized at a time when Ethnic Studies has become a requirement at the high school level throughout the state,” said Hong. “We are positioning our students to have union-backed teaching jobs and to help roll out Ethnic Studies throughout the state.”

Hong also points to developments on the horizon: a Science and Justice minor, an ongoing collaboration with the Science and Justice Research Center and a creative CRES initiative pushed forward by faculty from a variety of artistic disciplines as a way to emphasize that art has always been an essential part of social and racial justice movements.

One of their instructors is micha cárdenas, an assistant professor of performance, play, and design as well as the director of the Critical Realities Studio, who taught a class on Trans of Color Media in winter quarter, which looked at the performance art and media art being created by trans people of color.

“The field of transgender studies has been evolving to think about the intersections of race and gender,” cárdenas said. “Studying Black women or Black women’s writing about their experience is one way of thinking about race and gender together. But thinking about transgender people of color is another way of thinking about how race and gender shape each other. They both influence each other.”

In the wake of national and global uprisings for racial justice following the police murder of George Floyd, the backlash has only made the department more committed to its work.

“Critical Ethnic Studies is constantly under attack,” said Taylor Ainslie, CRES department manager. “There are the overt attacks you’ll hear about from right wing media but there are also structural barriers that don’t look like an attack per se but nevertheless have a similar impact on our ability to survive as a department. It just gives us more reason to continue fighting.”