The Fight Over Ethnic Studies in Tucson, Arizona

Via Revolution newspaper:

As the new year opened, the outgoing head of public education in Arizona, Tom Horne, issued an official “finding” declaring that the Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson school district, one of four ethnic studies programs in that district, was in violation of a new state law that had just gone into effect. The finding by Horne—now the newly elected Arizona state attorney general—gave the Tucson school district 60 days to “comply” with the law. And the finding threatened that “the only way in which compliance can be effective within the next 60 days is by elimination of the Mexican American Studies program.” The Tucson school district could have 10 percent of its budget taken away, amounting to about $15 million, if it does not eliminate the program.

 

The law that went into effect on January 1 declares that a school district or charter school in Arizona cannot include in its program of instruction any course or classes that include any of the following:

1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government;

2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people;

3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; or

4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

While the law does not make ethnic studies as such illegal, those behind the law have made no secret of their desire to get rid of the Tucson school district’s Mexican American Studies and other ethnic studies programs in the state.

This new law, passed by the Arizona legislature last April, came on the heels of Arizona’s reactionary anti-immigrant law, SB1070, which legalizes racial profiling by requiring police to stop and question anyone who they suspect is undocumented. That was followed by an announcement by the state’s Department of Education that teachers with heavy accents must be removed from classes for students still learning English. Many have interpreted this as targeting immigrant teachers who were first hired under a program to teach bilingual education, a program later abolished as part of the overall anti-immigrant climate.

The attack on ethnic studies represents yet another “brick in the wall” of an officially sanctioned white supremacy and American chauvinism in Arizona, while encouraging its spread around the country. Arizona has become an ugly battleground, and testing ground, for a new “Jim Crow,” reviving an official second-class status for the 30 percent of the people of Arizona who are Latino. (A federal judge issued an order that temporarily prevented Arizona from putting into effect several major provisions of the anti-immigrant law, but other repressive sections of the law did go into effect on July 29. See Revolution articles “Arizona’s Anti-Immigrant Law Is Inhumane & Illegitimate: Stop the System’s Fascist Attacks on Immigrants,” (#208, July 25, 2010) and “Behind the Federal Court Ruling: Vicious Attack on Immigrants Continue,” (#209, August 15, 2010), both online at revcom.us.)

The Importance of Ethnic Studies

In an online interview in July last year, Curtis Acosta, a high school ethnic studies teacher in Tucson and part of the group SaveEthnicStudies.org, said, “The purposes of our classes are varied, but our main objective is to rehumanize the academic experience for our students through culturally and socially relevant curriculum. It is no news flash that Latin@, African-American and Native American students have been historically marginalized and ignored in mainstream public school curriculum, and that the drop-out/push-out rates for our communities are far out of proportion compared to European-American students. The numbers are disturbing, unsettling, and as educators we have an obligation and responsibility to offer progressive pedagogical and curriculum changes to promote academic equality and achievement for all our students.” (Full interview is online at freshloveink.com/fli/tag/curtis-acosta.)

Rene Martinez, also a high school teacher of ethnic studies in Tucson and part of SaveEthnicStudies.org, told Revolution, “In our school district, we are 63 percent Latino students. So they really have grabbed on. And it’s been effective academically. In this era of standardized testing, students who have participated in our ethnic studies classes, regardless of ethnic background, they outperform their peers on the state standardized tests. But yet we continue to be scrutinized and attacked by our state legislators.”

Martinez, who teaches history, says that one of the things the program instills in the students is captured by the African proverb: “Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunted will always glorify the hunter.” Martinez said, “We talk about how we come from the lion’s perspective, from the story that’s never told. We emphasize the whole history, which historically and even now, continues to be left out.”

And it should be noted that learning about history—including the brutal oppression of Black, Latino, Native, and other people in the USA—is good for all students, including white students.

Ethnic studies programs that exist today have their origins in the 1960s. As the national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles of that period developed and a revolutionary current emerged, one powerful expression was the hard-fought student strikes demanding courses, departments and schools of ethnic studies. Ethnic studies programs, which later expanded to include women’s studies, gender studies, etc., established a foothold where oppressed nationality students especially could for the first time learn about and be part of discovering their own history; the struggle and resistance; and the contributions to art, culture, science, etc. of Black, Chicano, Native American, Asian and other oppressed peoples in this country.

These programs have contributed significantly to bringing to light the truth that America’s ultimate global domination rested on the foundation of the kidnapping of millions and millions of African peoples and their enslavement in the “new world,” the genocidal destruction of the Native American peoples, and the theft through war of 40 percent of the territory of Mexico as the start of a process of conquest that ultimately spanned the globe.

These are basic historical facts—not something off to the side, but realities that are central to the foundations of the United States and its development into an imperialist power. Now that the authorities in Arizona have outlawed ethnic studies, in the name of opposing “racial resentment,” what does that tell you about who fears the objective study of historical truths and wants to shut down critical inquiry in the schools? What does that say about who pushes and promotes ignorance? What does that tell you about the educational system under capitalism? And where does this indicate things are headed?

Resisting the Attacks

While the Arizona authorities are now focusing on the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson, it is clear that the forces behind this attack have further targets in mind. The finding by Tom Horne, the former head of public education in Arizona, said that two other ethnic studies programs in the Tucson school district aside from Mexican American Studies “could be found in violation” of the law. John Huppenthal, who replaced Horne as the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, has talked about wanting to see ethnic studies eliminated at the university level as well.

Last May 18, right after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed the anti-ethnic studies law, there was immediate reaction from students. Rene Martinez told Revolution, “There were massive walkouts. These students, ages all the way from middle school to seniors in high school, they all walked down to Tucson Unified School District headquarters. It’s a pretty large property, and they created a human chain around the entire perimeter of the place, yelling chants like ‘When our education is under attack, what do we do? Fight back!’”

Eleven Mexican American Studies teachers, including Martinez and Acosta, have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the anti-ethnic studies law. The Tucson school district has announced, in response to the finding, that it will try to comply with the law. Martinez said, “We feel that if our school district is trying to comply with House Bill 2281, then essentially they’re embracing it as a legitimate law... We feel why do we need to compromise and restructure our program, when we’ve done nothing wrong and what we’ve done has been very effective?”

Those behind the Arizona anti-ethnic studies law claim that their actions are based on the view that it is “fundamentally wrong to divide students up according to their racial group, and teach them separately” (from finding against Tucson school district’s Mexican American Studies). But what these forces are actually part of is the fascistic move on the rise in U.S. society today to reassert white supremacy and American patriotism—and an essential element in that is what they perceive as the need to restore the “official narrative” about America and its “special role” as the “good guys” in the world. To these reactionary forces, the Mexican-American and other ethnic studies programs on the secondary school and college campuses are an obstacle that must be eliminated.

The attacks on the Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson schools is deeply unjust. It is the responsibility of people broadly to strongly resist and speak out against this reactionary attack.

This article was first published by Revolution newspaper.