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What Color is Your History?

Colored books

Ethnic Studies classes have been a source of a lot of debate lately.


In the state of Arizona, House Bill 2281 was signed into law in late 2010 prohibiting classes  in state funded schools that promote the overthrow of the government or resentment toward a race or class, are designed for a specific ethnicity, or advocate ethnic solidarity.

In the beginning of 2011, the Tucson school district was accused of non-compliance by Tom Horne, and in mid 2011 audited by  John Huppenthal. In January 2012, the Mexican-American Studies program was cut from the Tucson School District. Arizona has become rather infamous in the news for its controversial policies directed toward its Mexican and Mexican-American residents. This can most certainly be interpreted as another attack on people of Mexican descent, as the law targeting ethnic studies was only (forcibly) applied to the Mexican-American Studies program. Its creator, former Superintendent of Public Instruction, now Attorney General Tom Horne was rather outspoken about his disapproval of Mexican-American Studies long before creating this bill. He was backed by Arizona Governor and former State Representative Jan Brewer, who has been involved in many of Arizona’s recent controversial laws, especially regarding Mexican and Mexican-American Arizonians. She is also known for fudging some of the facts in her statements. Eventually Horne was also supported by John Huppenthal, who moved into Horne’s former position as Superintendent of Public Instruction. Huppenthal was not at first so outspoken against Mexican-American studies; he visited the program, unlike the other two who refused to go based on the notion that the students and their teacher would represent their class dishonestly if they did. During Huppenthal’s visit, which was shown on the documentary “Precious Knowledge,” the class seemed to disprove what Horne was saying about the students’ radicalism and disrespect towards authority. The students engaged Huppenthal in their discussion, shared personal stories with him, and thanked him for being there. He seemed to have been enjoying the visit, until he questioned why certain founding fathers weren’t on the wall of pictures on a board and disliked the answer he received. When Huppenthal asked why a certain leader–I believe I may have been George Washington–was not displayed, the teacher supplied a comment that the leader had made regarding the inferiority of tarwinian (dark) people. The teacher felt that having the image of someone with that belief could be damaging to the way the children see themselves. Although Huppenthal was thanked again by the students and thought to have left with a fair representation of the class, after his visit he committed to helping Horne in his quest to end the program. He also began to believe that the positive attributes he saw in the class were a result of his visit and not real.

Despite protests by students, families, teachers and other community members, the bill did become Arizonian law. The Mexican-American Studies program was ended. This was devastating to  the students, most of which developed an interest in their education as a result of the class.

Issues with the Law from My Perspective

There are many things that I find to be problematic about this law, the passage of such, and the beliefs that it  is based upon. To begin with, I will address the listed criteria for noncompliance in HB 2281:

Horne targeted classes that promote the overthrow of the United States Government. As opposed to radicalism as Horne claims to be, the idea that an ethnic studies program promotes the overthrow of the government sounds radical to me.  In fact, I’ve heard the same thing expressed about Mexican-American studies, Mexican-Americans, and Mexican Immigrant groups on radical hate sites that believe that Mexican descendants in America are working with Mexico to overthrow the U.S government (and also other neat things, like multiculturalism destroying America, and that European-Americans are being forced to compromise their own country to diversity). These students aren’t all engaging in activities that compromise the government. In fact, most of their political involvement and activism was a result of the bill, not the cause of it. At the most, the children are being taught to be critical of their government, not to overthrow it. I believe most Americans value free thought, or at least say they do, and learning how to think for yourself is an important part of anyone’s education. If no one criticized or disagreed with our government there would be no point in our (still flawed) political processes, and a lot of the injustices that have been  part of our history would still be continuing today.

The targeted classes are also those that promote resentment toward a race or class of people. Horne believes that Ethnic Studies courses promote hatred towards (non-hispanic) white Americans. This is also a loaded accusation. The reason for this belief is because the role that white Americans have played throughout our collective histories has, many times, been negative where non-white Americans were involved. Events such as slavery, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Mexican Repatriation, Operation Wetback, Japanese-American internment, and the Chinese Exclusion Act are just a few of the many examples of pieces of our history that cannot be remember fondly. Such events, while regrettable, have shaped our history. It is important to learn of such things to learn how and why they happened and prevent them from repeating. I do not believe that teaching history causes resentment towards anyone; any resentment is towards the fact that such negative events took place. The events themselves may stir up some hurt, especially when they have impacted you or people with whom you identify personally, but that is an extremely weak reason to not discuss them. At the end of the day, Horne and people like him are not denying that the history being taught is true–rather, that knowledge of it is dangerous. The desire and tendency to hide or sugar-coat history is one of the main reasons why Ethnic Studies programs came into existence.

Targets were also classes that were designed for a specific ethnicity and/or advocate solidarity among an ethnic group. The classes were not designed for a specific ethnicity; any student was allowed to participate in the programs. The Mexican-American Studies Program was comprised mostly  students of Mexican or other Hispanic descent–not by policy, but because that is who chose to take the class; anyone else could have as well. Ethnic studies courses do teach the history of ethnic groups–which should be able to be inferred from the title–because these groups traditionally have not received much coverage in history classes and offer an opportunity to explore in-depth the histories of these groups. Prior to ethnic studies courses, American history has mostly been the history of European-Americans with small details of who else happened to be there. History classes were definitely always designed for a specific group; however, there was never a need for a hyphen or title other than American History, because that group can be confident that if the word “American” is put in front of “history,” it is their history and the history of their ancestors being told. I also was taken aback that “solidarity” was used as if it was a bad word. Last time I checked, solidarity was a word that meant something positive, that meant you stood with other people in their times of need. It is a Catholic principle as well. Why does it become wrong to be in solidarity with others when those others have something cultural in common with you? Is patriotism not a sort of nationalistic solidarity? What about nativism? Nativism in my opinion is mostly negative: it goes beyond the solidarity of patriotism and requires a group to be against in addition to a group to be “for” and, in many ways, is a part of the belief system of  “leaders” like Horne. Why is it considered worse by people with such opinions to feel united with people of the same culture, than to unite against people of different cultures? Is solidarity only virtuous when specific groups are included?

The Aftermath

Following the law, Arizona banned books from its classrooms that were related to the topics the politicians felt should not be discussed (like oppression), have themes of race and ethnicity, and/or are written about the Latino experience.

In 2012, the Supreme Court found Arizona to be in violation of a 30-year-old desegregation order, a plan which it receives funding to follow through on. The plan requires Arizona to offer culturally relevant courses to “black” (African-American)  and Hispanic students, make an effort to recruit and retain “minority” employees, and focus on changes needed to improve the quality of education for “black” and Hispanic students. While at first this seemed to be victory for those trying to revive the Mexican American Studies program, it is not. The court upheld the law, admitting that it does exude some discriminatory intent; however, the evidence illustrates that the law targets the program, not “Latino students, teachers, or community members” (those whom the law affects). This means that the program will never come back as it was, and the definition of culturally relevant courses is up to the discretion of the powers that be.

Texas Senate Bill 1128

It seems that lawmakers in Texas want to learn from Arizona’s example. Under the belief that history courses overemphasize race, gender, and socioeconomic class and do not pay enough attention to politics, the military, and diplomacy, Texas State Representative Giovanni Capriglione and State Senator Dan Patrick proposed measures  last month so that only “comprehensive survey courses” would count towards the history requirement for publicly funded higher-education institutions in Texas. SB 1128 would discount Mexican-American and African-American history courses from fulfillment of a college degree in Texas.

Ending Commentary

I was utterly shocked that the law against ethnic studies passed in Arizona. It seems obvious that the law is discriminatory and was enacted by individuals who have illustrated such intent towards the same groups of people throughout their career. However, it is not that surprising when considered along with other recent laws and proposed laws in Arizona. Also surprising is the fact that the law was designated towards Tucson District’s Ethnic Studies Program, which encompassed Mexican-American Studies, African-American Studies, Pan-Asian Studies, etc.; yet Horne only accused one program of non-compliance following the legislation, which was audited by Huppenthal and cut from the district. That program was the Mexican-American Studies program. I would think that Horne is old enough to know how to hide his biases like the rest of us, but apparently not.

The Mexican-American Studies Program was improving the overall grades and retention of the students who took the courses. This has been illustrated in a  Cambium Learning audit and the University of Arizona empirical analysis done for the desegregation case. In 2009, for example, the drop-out rate for low-income Hispanic students that were not in the program was 9.5% compared to the 1.5% of those that were enrolled. Along the same lines, there was a 67.8% graduation rate for those who were not in the program, compared to the 80.6% rate for those who were. The drop-out rate for middle-income Hispanic students was also significantly different based on participation in the program that year, 6.6%:2.8%. In every year from 2005-2010, there were significant increases for the number of Latino students graduating based on participation in the program. Many of the students that were formerly in the program discussed how they did not take an interest in their learning before the program or did not have confidence in their abilities before the program, whereas they could now relate to what they were learning or use the program as an outlet to escape from their difficult or complicated lives outside of school and many responsibilities.

The historical roots of our relationship with the majority in this country is indeed marked by hatred, resentment, condescension, and an assumption of inferiority, and that national narrative has a debilitating impact on our children’s ability to understand why Latinos have higher poverty rates, higher teenage pregnancy rates, and lower educational achievement.

Conservatives prefer that Latinos are taught that the illnesses of our community are self-inflicted, or a result of our inability to be more like them. That is not true, and an education that instead instills a sense of pride in our history would add important context to understanding how we can improve our communities. And this pride has a ripple effect across disciplines, like math and science.

-Stephen A. Nuño

The necessity of these programs seem evident to me, although their increased availability may now be taken for granted. American History has always been based on the white perspective; little has been done in our history to include Hyphenated-Americans into the mix. When we Hyphenated-Americans are included, our contributions are always mentioned briefly and downplayed. Many of our country’s heroes, including our founding fathers, were prejudiced towards nonwhites or committed acts of oppression, which at the time was perfectly acceptable in our society. Today, those things are supposedly less acceptable, yet those figures are still revered and expected to be revered by all. There are still a lot of outdated beliefs that are inaccurate but not challenged in common thought. This is one reason why Ethnic studies are crucial for all of America: for the sake of knowledge. It is also necessary to learn about oppression in our society–not only because it has shaped our history, but because it helps people to understand the conditions faced in our society today. I believe that ethnic minorities need to learn about themselves and each other, but even more I believe that white Americans need ethnic studies. In a lot of families, some of the history lessons that aren’t taught in schools are taught to children by the older generations who experienced them. We are given lessons of what they have faced to prepare us for what may come when we leave the safety net of our home. This cannot replace being taught history on a wide scale, but it is a start. Those who have not had such opportunity, or have been taught from more traditional perspectives, can remain blissfully unaware of many historical events and experiences that have shaped our society; and this awareness could provide a lot of insight into their judgments about the world around them, especially in America. I might also add that as person not of Mexican descent, I myself have greatly benefited from learning about Mexican-American history; and it has helped me learn a lot about my country, myself, and my beliefs.

If you would like to discuss this topic further, or would like references for further reading, please feel free to contact me!


image via Creative Commons:

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