Arizona Says Adiós to Ethnic Studies

BlogHer Original Post

On Thursday, the Arizona State Legislature passed House Bill 2281, a measure that prohibits public school districts from offering classes that "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," "promote the overthrow of the United States government," "promote resentment toward a race or class of people," or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

I'm worried less about the specific language and provisions of the bill than about the motivations of the people who authored it and voted to pass it.

At the heart of the bill seems to be an uneasiness with Chicana/o studies.  The bill was inspired in part by the Tucson school district's inclusion of Mexican American studies in its curriculum, (which was previously called Raza Studies and included the works of educational reformers like Paolo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed), and has been supported vigorously by State Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne.

According Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, the Raza Studies program students -— approximately 1,200 Latino students -— outperformed their peers.  Citing research by Dr. Augustine Romero, Rodriguez writes,

Horne is seemingly unaware that students from Raza Studies who are taught about their indigenous cultures consistently outperform students from all backgrounds at TUSD. They also have a very high college-going rate.

Paul Teitelbaum reported in February about students' appreciation for Tucson's Raza Studies program. Students and alumni, he writes,

Students explained that the ethnic studies program combats the mythology incorporated in euro-centric history books that does little or nothing to portray the lives and history of the Indigenous people of Arizona. Ethnic studies programs teach oppressed youth the true history of how their land was stolen, their lives uprooted and their culture all but destroyed. Studying the rich history of the Indigenous peoples reveals the actual historical events that led to the ceding of one-third of Mexico to the expanding U.S. empire, and the forced removal of peoples from their ancestral homelands. “What we learn is the unique experience of Mexicanos who lived through the circumstances surrounding the defeat of Mexico and theft of Mexican land in 1848,” one student explained.

Dustin from Savage Minds wrote particularly eloquently about this issue when HB 2281's predecessor bill, Senate Bill 1069, was approved by a state senate committee in June 2009, so I'm going to quote him at length.

At risk for conservatives like [former National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Lynne] Cheney is not history, per se. After all, the Massacre at Sand Creek happened, the Constitution really did set black people’s worth at 3/5 that of white people’s, and police and militia really did attack the children of striking workers in Lawrence, MA, as they approached the train station en route to lodging away from the hunger and violence of the strike. In a place like Tucson, which was after all part of Mexico until the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, the history of “la Raza” is particularly relevant.

What is at risk is the notion that American history should not be just (or even in many cases) the facts of our past but should be a story that edifies national citizenship.  [...] [To conservatives,] there is a narrative of history that Americans should share, and this narrative is one that celebrates the triumphs and high values of our nation while downplaying the embarrassments and shortcomings.

In Arizona, and in the Southwest in general, this narrative takes on special importance as an assimilative tool, because for the most part, it is not the history of the people who live there. Latino children in traditional US history classes get the dubious pleasure of sitting through months of a history that, unless by some miracle the teacher manages to get up to the 1960s and the agricultural worker strikes led by Cesar Chavez, is unlikely to contain a Latino name except as enemies. This narrative that largely excludes the Latino experience form American history defines our history largely as the history of white folks, predominantly male. 

With such narrow-minded thinking behind the bill, why do I say I'm not worried about its actual provisions?  Well, the bill specifically protects instruction about Native Americans from being impacted by the bill.  It also retains the rights of schools to group students by English language ability, which sometimes results in ethnically homogeneous classes.  Most importantly, it also teachers to continue discussions of "controversial aspects of history," "the Holocaust," "any other instance of genocide," and "the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on ethnicity, race, or class."  As far as I'm concerned, that's a loophole big enough to drive a César Chávez Day parade float through.

The bill makes a couple of asinine assumptions:  First, that classes about a particular ethnic group are designed exclusively for instruction of that ethnic group, and second, that it's possible to recognize the full humanity and instructional needs of students without considering how their life experiences have been shaped by their ethnic background -— by the privileges they have enjoyed or the prejudices they have endured.

As for that bit about current courses in Tucson or elsewhere promoting "the overthrow of the United States government"?  That's slippery slope thinking.  After all, instruction about Dolores Huerta, César Chávez, and the Mexican resistance to U.S. colonialism following the American annexation of Texas qualifies as a treasonous curriculum only if one equates any challenge to the status quo (including white hegemony in, say, agribusiness) with a direct assault on American governmental institutions.

And oh -— one sign that your legislature might have passed a bill that is racist in intent?  When folks at the Stormfront white supremacist forums (and no, I'm not going to link to the forums themselves) cheer and think about relocating to Arizona.  At this moment, I can't imagine a bigger red flag.

On a personal note, issues of race in the teaching of history are very much on my mind these days.  Yesterday I submitted my textbook orders for the history courses -— an introduction to American history through 1877 and a seminar on public history -— I'll be teaching this fall.  I'll be teaching at a mostly white regional public university in the Pacific Northwest, and it's unlikely many of the students in my courses will have had to grapple meaningfully with issues of race in American history, nor will they likely have been victims of everyday or exceptional racism.  The bizarre rewriting of the state history curriculum by Texas conservatives and the fearful and racially-motivated HB 2281, along with countless other recent examples, will, I think, serve as excellent case studies for my students as we consider how history gets written -— who writes it, who gets represented in mainstream narratives, and how.  In fact, these two incidents of state intervention serve as excellent arguments for a broader embrace of public history -— of history of, by, and for everyday people -— over solely triumphalist national narratives.

So I want to know: No matter where in the world you live, where and how have you encountered what were (until 30 or 40 years ago) considered "alternative" histories of "minority" voices?  And how are you representing your region's or nation's history to the next generation?

Although she doesn't mention it much, every once in a while Leslie Madsen-Brooks feels the need to dust off her Ph.D. in cultural studies and express some righteous indignation.  Leslie blogs about academia and motherhood at The Clutter Museum.  She currently helps UC Davis faculty become more thoughtful about their teaching, but in the fall will step onto the tenure track as an assistant professor of history at Boise State. 


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