If it weren’t for an extension, today would have marked an important date in the ongoing legal battles raging around the ban of Ethnic Studies courses in Arizona. House Bill 2281, which went into effect at the start of 2011, narrowed the prescribed curriculum toward a celebration of a dominant image of America and its past by ensuring that classes cannot “promote the overthrow of the United States government” or “advocate ethnic solidarity.” This bill entails banning Ethnic Studies courses, including classes in ethnic literature and history, where such views were allegedly taught. Mexican American Studies (sometimes called Raza Studies in Tucson Unified School District) received the brunt of the allegations with bill proponent former state Superintendent Tom Horne describing the “revolutionary program” as “an abuse of taxpayer dollars” because it allegedly promotes racial divisiveness and teaches Chicano children “the downer that they are oppressed” and “they should be angry against the government and they should be angry against the country.” During an Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing, Senator Russell Pearce accused Ethnic Studies of teaching “hate speech, sedition, anti-Americanism.” A student of the program responded, “It doesn’t teach us to be anti-American, it teaches us to embrace America, all of its flaws and all.” In a later interview Pearce added, “This is anti-American revolutionary talk in a high school.” Another Arizona legislator at the hearing, Steve Montenegro, made explicit the connection between these courses and the fear that schools are teaching children how to speak out about injustice by claiming, “these programs are aimed at creating dissention.”
Instead, Horne argues, schools should teach that America is the “land of opportunity” and immigrants should learn “American history.” I contend that teaching a version of American history that omits or only briefly touches upon the historical and ongoing oppression of significant populations within its borders stamps out the plurality of perspectives on American identity and shared experience that are central to a democracy that is accountable to all of its members. This is especially problematic when a sizeable portion of the school population, as is the case in most of Arizona, are themselves members of the minority group whose history or literature are being omitted or downsized in the curriculum. Moreover, equating the teaching about oppression of racial minority groups to spreading communism and government overthrow, as Horne does, aligns students who have legitimate justice claims about their fair treatment in society with extremists. Implementing this view into prescribed curriculum limits children’s ability to learn how to raise worthy issues of dissent. Preventing them from not only learning about, but also speaking out about the injustices toward certain groups that have pervaded America’s past and present, prohibits children from fulfilling their Declaration of Independence-backed duty to dissent against injustice and makes the fulfillment of justice less likely insofar as it denies the existence or importance of ongoing racial oppression and actively works against solidarity building amongst historically oppressed peoples. Indeed the Ethnic Studies courses themselves resulted from a claim to justice; they were part of a court ordered program following a federal desegregation case. Ending them means not only ending an aspect of justice in that case, but also ending an education that can build justice-seeking capacities within students. Notably, many students within the banned classes took to the streets, to official government hearings, and to the media to protest the Bill and its meaning (as seen in the photo). In the next few weeks, I anticipate that we will continue to see teacher and student frustration and protest as the Tucson schools figure out if and how to comply with HB 2281. Let’s hope justice prevails.