Arizona and the 'Menace' of Ethnic Studies?

What gives in Arizona? First they reject the celebration of Martin Luther King Day; then the Arizona legislators submit a tough law targeting all who appear to be illegal immigrants; and now Governor Jan Brewer has signed a bill prohibiting the Tucson school district from offering certain types of ethnic studies in the high schools.

The Associated Press reported that the measure signed Tuesday (5/11/2010) prohibits classes that advocate ethnic solidarity, that are designed primarily for students of a particular race or that promote resentment toward a certain ethnic group. The courses prohibited include courses in African-American studies, Mexican-American studies and Native-American studies, which have been offered by the Tucson Unified School District (see Associated Press story, 5/11/2010, by Jonathan J. Cooper). The justification is that such courses, while teaching ethnic solidarity, encourage resentment toward other groups. According to state schools chief, Tom Horne, these programs promote "ethnic chauvinism." Moreover, some students who don't belong to the ethnic group at issue have reported that they experienced antagonism by instructors and students.

These are some of the reasons given for the prohibition of such courses. But I would argue that there are plenty of reasons on the other side; many of us hold that such courses provide enough benefit to students that far outweigh the putative liabilities. Let's consider the issue in more detail and try to see things from the perspective of the Arizona politicians. But before that, I have a few personal remarks to show that I don't have a bias against the state of Arizona.

Arizona has always seemed a decent enough state. I love the natural beauty, the rugged desert landscape, and the incomparable Grand Canyon area. I have relatives and friends who live in Arizona, and the people generally seem friendly and intelligent. An Arizona State patrolman once went beyond the call of duty to help me and my wife when we had been involved in an automobile accident. So I retain positive feelings toward the Arizona law enforcement community; and I continue to believe that Arizona is a great state and largely populated by good people. However, next time I visit the state I must remember to take my passport along.

In light of the many positive qualities of the state, the actions of Arizona politicians are curious, to say the least. It is not an exaggeration to say that they appear to be antagonistic toward racial and ethnic minorities. For a time Arizona politicians refused to honor the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King; thus giving insult to African Americans and anyone who values the work and progress of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Lately they have cited the facts of real trouble with drug cartels, violence, and drug smuggling at the border with Mexico to justify a new law requiring that anyone who "appears to be here illegally" provide documents proving their legal right to walk the earth inside the borders of the United States. "Appear to be here illegally": I wonder what that could mean? Guess which ethnic groups that law targets? It surely won't be all those northern Europeans and Canadians who might have overstayed their student or work visas. (You can bet there are plenty of those people in Arizona.) No, the targets will be poor, working class people who appear Mexican or Central American.

Returning to the ethnic studies issue, why forbid Native-American Studies? The various groups of Native-Americans in and around Arizona (Navajo, Hopi, Apache, etc.), who have probably suffered the longest at the hands of the more powerful white, European invaders, will likely wonder what they have done recently to be included in the group of undesirables. (?)

I have spent many years in class rooms of all sorts: elementary and secondary schools in Colorado, technical training in the U.S. Air Force; college courses in all levels of study in colleges and universities in California, and finally technical courses offered by governmental agencies and private corporations. But I have never had the privilege of an ethnic studies course of any kind. So I cannot speak from experience. I have neither gained any educational benefit nor suffered any ethnically inspired distortion of facts or values in such classes. In my high school days, ethnic studies courses did not exist. During the later periods of my college and university studies, ethnic studies courses were in their early phase; they were available but not too prominent in the college curricula. I was too busy with my formal and technical courses necessary to attaining my degrees; thus, I was not able to take advantage of any ethnic studies offered. But I surely would have profited from learning more about our history and social realities, studies which do not shy away from the ugly facts of such history and social reality.

Based on conversations with those who have taken such courses and recalling my reading about the experiences of others, I would say that students gain much educational benefit and do not suffer the alleged negative consequences (distortion of history and hostility to the oppressors of past periods of history) from such studies. Yes, I have heard from some white students who felt they were in hostile territory when they entered such classes and who experienced some resentment, even hostility, by the ethnic group in the course. But I have also heard from other students, of all ethnic backgrounds and races, who were grateful for such instruction because they learned much concerning the history of inter-ethnic and inter-racial interactions, tensions, oppression of one group by another and such. Surely, you would not argue that it is beneficial to keep people ignorant about those facts of our history?

During my high school years, history and social studies classes did not even mention my ethnic group; Mexican Americans and other Hispanics were invisible in the acceptable history and social studies taught at our schools. I don't even recall that much, if any, mention was made of African Americans ("Negros," in the 1950s) or of the Native Americans ("Indians," in the 1950s). History was taught as if the only important players were white males (mostly of Europeans descent) and that they alone contributed to our great nation. Furthermore; American History was taught as if everything our country did was admirable and noble. All ugly facts and periods of American history were simply neglected. We learned little or nothing about the treatment of Native Americans, the destruction of entire cultures, our country's acceptance and promotion of slavery for many decades prior to Emancipation in the 1860s, and our long history of racism, bigotry, and oppression of minorities, not to mention the oppression of women. Those things simply did not contribute to patriotism and good citizenship, so those facts were simply ignored. Of course, there weren't any suggestions that our country carried on unjust wars against other nations and that our government and international corporations contributed to the oppression and poverty in other countries. This simply did not happen according to the wisdom of the educational establishment of the time.

Maybe that kind of official bias in education is part of what the political establishment in Arizona is trying to revive. Don't mention those bad parts of American history! After all, ethnic studies courses bring out those unsavory, ugly aspects of American history. Consider that Native-American studies will emphasize the experience of Native Americans since the invasion of Europeans, contrary to official versions of history which tell students about the heroic European explorers who discovered this part of the world and opened it up to European exploration, settlement, "civilization," and enduring exploitation. The experience of the Native Americans, whose cultures were destroyed, is not a happy one, and it is not one which puts American History in a flattering light. So maybe we should go easy on these Native-American studies, Arizona suggests. The intended purpose of such courses might be good; admittedly they attempt to give some understanding of the experience of Native Americans and foster pride in being a member of that besieged group. But in the process, they also stimulate resentment against those who treated Americans in such a brutal fashion, so the Arizona politician tells us. This is the type of thing that we should either ignore or 'whitewash' in some way.

We can imagine similar remarks made regarding African-American studies and Mexican-American studies (sometime called "Chicano studies"). African-American studies focus too much attention on the institution of slavery, the struggle of human beings to escape slavery and to gain some measure of civil rights. This, in turn, focuses too much attention on the failings of our laws and institutions until the recent past. It is best not to spend too much time there. Mexican-American studies courses also spend too much time talking about ethnic bigotry and injustice of the past; and recent efforts to improve the lot of Hispanic minorities. Again, this underscores too much the extent to which society and our institutions have not succeeded in treating everyone justly, regardless of ethnicity and skin color. This could inspire resentment with regards to past practices and the oppressors of those times. This is not good for our contemporary society.

Better to bypass all that! While we're on the subject, maybe we should take a closer look at those courses which emphasize the experience of women and the Feminist movement. After all, our wonderful country did not see fit to grant women the right to vote until the 1920s. Surely that fact does not inspire patriotism and greater love for country. Better sweep all that under the rug! So speak the Arizona political establishment.

Trying to give some credit to this perspective of the Arizona politicians, we might add that we should not subject naïve young students to the harsh disillusion that might result from learning the facts of history and social relations. After all, many young and impressionable students, including some of minority ethnic groups, have bought completely the myths and white-washed history that the 'patriotic' establishment promotes. You have surely heard the main points of this mythical history: America promotes freedom and opportunity for all; America is the best society in the world; in our international relations, we only try to bring freedom to others nations. In short, American has always done what is good and continues to do only what is good. This is the version of history promoted by Ronald Reagan and repeated by the likes of G.W. Bush. People who have bought into such myth might be confused and hurt if they're exposed to the types of things taught in Ethnic studies courses. So it is better, for the good of all concerned, to avoid such courses. Surely, we should not endorse such courses in our educational system.

But doesn't all this begin to resemble regimes that rewrite history and keep people ignorant about that which can hurt the established order? Isn't this the type of thing one would expect in the old Soviet Union or in some totalitarian theocracy where all must think only the State-approved thoughts, or risk annihilation?

The study of Ethnic Courses does not result in people who are subversives and antagonistic to our democratic form of government. Such study, like all legitimate education, results in people who are informed and operate on the basis of realism and enlightenment. If that represents a threat to the Arizona political establishment, maybe it is time that the good people of Arizona take a closer look at the types of individuals they elect to office.


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