Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES) majors develop a deep understanding of how race and other modalities of power have structured human life and have informed the imagination of social transformation and justice in the past and the present. CRES accordingly offers a study of the dynamic power relations resulting from the cultural and institutional productions of the idea of “race” on a local, national, and global scale. Here, “race” is understood as a major ideological framework through which both practices of power and domination and struggles for liberation and self-determination have been articulated and enacted throughout modern history and in the contemporary moment. The study of “race,” as such, is a rigorous project, one which yields critical insights into the social, political, cultural, and economic processes that have defined and shaped the modern era—colonialism and slavery, conquest and displacement, genocide and warfare, migration and creolization, criminalization, imprisonment, and disenfranchisement, globalization and post-9/11 security state policies such as racial profiling. These phenomena orient our attention to particular academic fields with which CRES is necessarily in dialogue. These fields include postcolonial studies, settler colonialism studies, human rights studies, indigenous studies, migration, diaspora and border studies, mixed race studies, legal studies, environmental studies, and science studies.

Faculty from across the UC Santa Cruz campus have contributed significantly to conversations in critical race and ethnic studies for decades, with nationally renowned faculty in anthropology, community studies, feminist studies, film and digital media, history, history of art and visual culture, history of consciousness, Latin American and Latino studies, literature, politics, psychology, social documentation, sociology, and the sciences. In addition to courses specifically offered under the subject of CRES, many courses engaging critical race and ethnic studies are sponsored by these departments across campus.

Launched in 2014-15 as an undergraduate program, CRES gained departmental status as of July 1, 2021.  The curriculum has been formally organized such that undergraduate students may pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree and/or a Minor in Black Studies, as well as a 4+1 pathway into Education's M.A./Credential Master’s program. Doctoral students may pursue a Designated Emphasis alongside their doctoral degree program.