CSER was created in response to a student strike in 1996. The students advocated for the creation of an academic unit dedicated to the study of ethnicity and race. Three years after the strike, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race was founded under the direction of Professor Gary Okihiro. In 2006, Professor Claudio Lomnitz became CSER's second director; Professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner began her tenure as director in 2009 and Professor Neferti Tadiar was named CSER director in 2016.
Initially, the Center housed two majors: Asian American Studies and Latino Studies. In 2004, CSER added a third major, Comparative Ethnic Studies. In 2010, CSER joined part of its undergraduate program with Barnard College's Interdisciplinary Concentration on Race and Ethnicity (ICORE) and created a single major, Ethnicity and Race Studies. In addition, CSER became the home of Native American/Indigenous Studies as an area of specialization.
The new single major allows students to organize their studies through various tracks, including Asian American Studies, Latino Studies, Native American/Indigenous Studies, Comparative Ethnic Studies, and Individualized Study. Individualized courses of study may encompass a wide variety of themes and questions, including health; human rights; urban spaces; cultural production; media; the environment; and the relationship between race, ethnicity and law.
The Center has also grown over the last decade. From an initial faculty of four, the Center now has over fifty faculty members including core faculty members, adjuncts, visiting professors, and affiliates from Columbia, Barnard, and elsewhere. The Center is governed by an Executive Committee, which includes core and affiliate faculty members, and is supported by rotating committees that contribute to shaping the curriculum and other Center activities.
At present, CSER continues to be Columbia's main interdisciplinary space for the study of ethnicity and race and their implications for thinking about culture, power, hierarchy, social identities, and political communities. The Center also offers a wide range of public programming, including Artist at the Center, Indigenous Forum, and Latino Public Speaker Series and the Transnational Asian/American Speaker Series. CSER's most recent spaces include the Media and Idea Lab and Gallery at the Center, a space dedicated to curating artistic and thematic exhibits around the Center’s key areas of interest.