U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The banning of Ethnic Studies in Arizona

Arizona lawmakers would have us believe that teaching ethnic studies is code for segregating students, teaching them racism, revolution, and victimization. They have spent the last several years trying to enact a ban on ethnic studies courses in Arizona schools. In May 2010, they passed such a law and the governor signed it. Dos Vatos Productions filmed an entire year of Ethnic Studies classes (an American government and a Latino/a literature course) to find out what really was happening in the classes. Mexican-American students have a national graduation rate of 50%, but students who take the Ethnic Studies courses have a graduation rate of 93% and a college attendance rate of 82%.

The film is called Precious Knowledge and we had a screening at the University of Kentucky Wednesday evening, sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center.

I bought a copy of the dvd and am thinking about showing it in my course. It documents such a powerful clash of ideas about race and talking about race. Tom Horne, the superintendant of schools and now Attorney General repeated over and over again that he had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and that by opposing Ethnic Studies classes, he was fulfilling King’s vision of judging people by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin (Ben Alpers talked about the conservative use of King before on the blog). By teaching Mexican culture, these teachers were automatically being anti-American, he argued. The premise of his speeches seemed to be that there exists an America without race, that is full of individuals making it on their own, and then over there are all of these collectivist people who emphasize race and are therefore racists. The unspoken assumption is that the individuals are white or people assimilating into white culture. For instance, when one of his colleagues sat in on the classes, he commented that the teacher wore a collared shirt and tie, and so therefore must be sort of pro-American. When the Brown Berets supported the students at a protest, their brown shirts, berets, and sunglasses represented anti-American revolutionaries to the lawmakers. (Fashion does matter!)

The two major voiced criticisms of the classes where that they were un-American because they criticized the Founding Fathers for being racist and that they used the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Friere, which has footnotes by Lenin, Marx, and Che Guevara (whom one lawmaker called a “thug”), which led to the lawmaker’s presumption that the classes were teaching students to be revolutionaries and telling the students that they are oppressed. One commenter in the newspaper feared that the classes were teaching violence against white students.

According to the clips of the classes that were shown, they seemed very much like college history classes teaching Race, Class, and Gender analysis. It made me wonder if the Arizona lawmakers would go after the University of Arizona or Arizona State next. Matthew Whitaker of ASU has started a new Institute called the “Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.” Just based on the name, a lawmaker drafted a bill challenging the existence of centers–it was clear from the language of the bill that the CSRD was targeted.* Here is the purpose of the center:

The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy serves as a leading interdisciplinary, problem-solving venture committed to engaged scholarship, and informed dialogue involving the topics of race and democracy. The CSRD serves as a hub of scholarly activity at Arizona State University, and a source of expert opinion and professional support on matters of race and democracy at the local, state, national, and international levels. Researchers and practitioners affiliated with the Center are tasked with expanding the study of race and democracy beyond the black/white binary, understanding that race and participatory democracy intersect with gender, class, religion, sexuality, and nationality.

The CSRD facilitates scholarly research and publications, interdisciplinary study, discourse, and debate on cutting-edge issues related to race and democracy, broadly construed. It also provides experiential opportunities for faculty and students to engage in public service through, for example, local, national, and international programs, internships, and fellowships, and the Center administers community service projects that serve underrepresented institutions in the greater metropolitan Phoenix area.

 The Center held a Healing Racism Public Dialogue Series. Their forums “bring together academic experts, community leaders, and interested citizens for engaging and productive discussions that encourage critical thinking and positive change.” Dr. Whitaker explained, “you will rarely find a gathering in Arizona that is this diverse.”

The students in Tucson responded to the challenge to their classrooms with demonstrations, pickets, a run between Tucson and Phoenix in 113 degree heat (it’s about 100 miles), and a sit-in at a government building. My thoughts go to education. Horne is a Harvard educated lawyer, who, at least by his rhetoric, believes he is fulfilling Martin Luther King’s vision. He has been presented with information and formed his own opinion–we in the university are in the business of encouraging critical thinking and developing one’s own opinions. Are we meant to be more like NPR reporters, who present information but are banned from political action, or more like activist intellectuals, like Manning Marable?

How do we teach the next generation of Tom Horne’s without alienating them? I think we must find a way to teach about the importance of race, without students only hearing political correctness and turning off their ears.

A final note–in the film, one Tucson teacher says that all students are just lazy and uninterested in learning and that is why there is such a low drop out rate. One of the Ethnic Studies teachers, Mr. Gonzalez, contradicted him and said that he had never met a student alienated by learning, but had met many students alienated by school. Per Andrew’s question about contemporary university education, I think we, too, have to find a way not to alienate students by the university, but instead engage them fully in the process (that includes every type of student–Anglo, black, Latino/a, Asian, Indian, men, women, gay, straight). Every semester I learn a little bit more of how to do that. Being heavy handed and didactic is not the best way, but asking questions leaves it up to the students to find their own answers. We have to let them, while still testing them. It is a difficult balance.

In one of the classes, the students repeated together a poem that is the foundation of the Chicano/a civil rights movement every day. Here it is:

In Lak’ech

Tú eres mi otro yo—you are my other me

Si te hago daño a ti,me hago daño a mí mismo.

If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself.

Sí te amo y respeto,me amo y me respeto yo.

If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.**

*This information came from a conversation with Dr. Whitaker. I didn’t find the name of the bill.
**The poem was repeated several times in the film. I found a copy of it here.
***The first photo is from the facebook page of “Precious Knowledge.” It was taken in Mr. Gonzalez’s Government class in Tucson. The other photos are from one of the Healing Racism Forums at ASU.Dr. Whitaker is in the second photo.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren,

    Good stuff. While I understand the impulse for an integrated curriculum—a goal that even the African-American champion of black history Carter G. Woodson aspired to—it still feels, at times, like conservatives want to sweep race and ethnic history (often taught under the “studies” rubric) under the rug. They don’t understand the time needed for an empowerment to equality—the sense of time that Lyndon Johnson articulated in his 1965 Howard Commencement Address. This applies, of course, to all formerly and presently oppressed ethnic groups.

    – TL

  2. The cynic in me can’t help thinking that the rationale for ethnic studies goes something like this:

    “Academic disciplines as they are traditionally constituted (literature, history, what have you) are propaganda. They either ignore us, or, if they do not, slight or denigrate us. Because of this, we need propaganda of our own.”

    That’s not the whole of it, of course, but I’ve never seen anything to indicate that this attitude isn’t part of the motivation, however small. In saying this I don’t mean to imply that academic disciplines as traditionally constituted aren’t propaganda (or propagandistic). We all know they can be, and are.

    With that said, I have a more general question about the philosophy of ethnic studies. If they are in part a reaction to being shunned by the dominant culture, does institutionalizing that rejection actually serve to reinforce it? Now, that presumes that the aspiration for the shunned group is acceptance, integration, toleration; call it what you will. The possibility can’t be ruled out that exclusivity of the ethnic group is a goal of the ethnic group, or at least some within it.

    As one plunges deeper, one begins to reach basic political philosophical issues, such as whether a polity can persist, let alone thrive, without a coherent, cohesive national culture. E pluribus, unum. But is there a point at which there are so many the one is overwhelmed?

    “What, then, is this new man, the American?” Crevocoeur’s question is still being asked, but still has not been answered, if it can be.

  3. Varad, I would state the matter a little less starkly than you do: in the particular historical moment when ethnic studies departments were being formed the objection was that the humanities and social science either misrepresent or ignore the histories of ethnoracial minorities. It seems like there was plenty of justification for this view (and still today, especially in high schools).

    The question that I think was never entirely answered is whether the problem with the humanities and social sciences was fixable or was permanent. In other words, was ethnic studies to be a temporary corrective or a permanent alternative?

    It sounds like Dr. Horne is objecting to ethnic studies as a tactic, whether it’s temporary or permanent. And I think this is one version of mid-20th century color-blind liberalism. I also think that ethnic studies as a temporary corrective (however long it takes) is well within the same tradition. But–and I think this is where you are going with your argument–ethnic studies as a permanent alternative is something that rejects the possibility of an inclusive narrative.

    I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about this tension and whether an integrated narrative is something that is necessary or useful. But I will mention that it has been an ongoing debate within the field of political theory that is described particularly well by law professor Sarah Song in an issue of Daedelus. Her article, “What does it mean to be an American?” can be found here: http://www.amacad.org/publications/daedalus/09_spring_song.pdf

  4. Lauren: Apologies for opening this can of worms again, but did we ever consider the “Friday factor” in why your posts don’t seem to attract as much attention as others? Namely, that Friday might be kind of slow because it’s, well, Friday. This post seems to be exactly the kind that would get a lot of attention on another day of the week. But on a Friday (aka, a slow news day), it doesn’t. Just a thought.

  5. Good post, Lauren. I have tons to say on this matter since it’s directly related to my research. If you remember, I wrote about this topic a few months back–HERE. I didn’t get a single comment, and it was a decent post, or at least, I spent some time on it. This was back when I was the Friday blogger, so I think Varad is right that Friday has something to do with it. In fact, the reason I didn’t comment earlier is because Friday is a writing day for me so I do my best to avoid the internets altogether. And right now I’m off to have a beer and watch a movie with my wife now that the lids are asleep, so any substantial comments will have to wait!

  6. So funny. I think you’re right about the Friday fall-off. I sometimes dread the weekend lull at USIH. I mean, don’t you people know I have writing to procrastinate? How can I not get my work done when it’s quiet here?

  7. An interesting post, Lauren. Have you seen the documentary, Culture Shock! It’s dated a bit now, but there is an episode in which teaching Huck Finn is debated in AZ.

    Do you know if there is a university program in race and ethnicity that resides in an area that might be considered less than welcoming to the concept itself that people hold up as a success story? I had this discussion the other day with some colleagues and we concluded that we are looking for examples that are rarely spoken about because they are successfully uncontroversial. At the same time, I wonder if the success of the programs should not be measured by how controversial they are–perhaps the natural state of American thought should be the culture wars.

  8. Great Post Lauren! Although I agree with you about the fact that teacher’s need to emphasize, to a certain extent, the history of the many different cultures living in our country today. However, I also believe that we are a culture that resembles a melting pot, ever changing the dynamic of our culture and what an american represents today. I think that students need to learn that they are living in a culture composed of many, very different cultures that compose an ultimate american culture that is blended by so many sub-cultures. I hope that the students will then see that racism is irrelevant, considering that we are all American’s, just a different ingredient to the complete recipe of the american melting pot!

  9. After having read Fanon in my recent graduate course, the issue of how to address race and cultures in my own classroom became a larger issue for me. I look forward to viewing this film – thank you for posting and for opening the discussion of this. On one note, I do disagree that MLK, Jr wanted race and cultures to be ignored when he was suggesting that all judgements be removed. It is very scary to think that someone who advanced in the school system believed otherwise.

    Thanks again.

  10. One of the most important parts of education is creating a safe environment for the student where he or she feels included and important. It seems to me that if a couple of Ethnic Studies courses throughout a child’s life helps to achieve this goal then society, including the lawmakers, should embrace it. Although I agree that there needs to be regulations for these types of classes along with an approved curriculum, the numbers speak for themselves. If these types of classes have positive results for Mexican-American students, then as a society, we should push for other programs for different minority groups.

    This discussion opens the question of how teachers are supposed to handle the hard issues of race and ethnicity in their classrooms, especially when the government refuses to acknowledge that certain minority groups are more likely to feel alienated and in turn drop out. Do we work to give our students the skills they need to succeed in the world and to handle adversity, or do we work for the government who refuses to see something positive?

  11. Frederica said…

    I think ethnic studies courses should not be banned because i feel it is beneficial and important to learn about other cultures.it allows students to learn about history from the past. it also increases the awareness of the past and help people make better judgements. also, it helps reunite students by providing them with a better understanding of one another racial backgrounds.

  12. i dont think american taxpayers should be forcrd to finanically support classes that teach studients to learn about their culture and history.

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