Why Arizona banned ethnic studies


It’s more than a little ironic that the same Arizona Legislature that spearheaded a ruthless, racially charged campaign against illegal immigrants also banned K-12 ethnic studies classes on the grounds that they promote hatred and division. Who knew Arizona’s Republican majority, as expert as it is at hyperbole and invective, was so committed to fostering healthy race relations in the Grand Canyon State?

Last month, after a court fight against the ban, the governing board of the Tucson Unified School District pulled the plug on its Mexican American studies program, which teachers say was designed to help middle school and high school students navigate in a complex, multiethnic world.

I’ve never been much of a fan of ethnic studies, mostly because I think the politicized curriculum often lacks rigor and tends to be crammed with early 1970s “victim rhetoric” that can narrow students’ sense of possibilities rather than broaden them. Having 15-year-olds read Paulo Freire’s jargon-heavy Marxist “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is a bit much (it was on the syllabus). But I’m all for students being taught that their ethnic histories play a significant role in U.S. history.


In any case, to characterize Tucson’s program as anti-American or hate-mongering is pretty far-fetched, particularly given the animosity that’s been stoked in the last few years by the likes of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the recently recalled state Senate President Russell Pearce.

Both the ban’s author, state Atty. Gen. Tom Horne, and its biggest supporter, Supt. of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, touted their opposition to ethnic studies and their “tough on Mexicans” credentials in their bids for statewide office in 2010. In one particularly baldfaced radio ad paid for by Huppenthal’s campaign, the announcer declares the candidate to be “one of us.” He goes on to say that Huppenthal voted to end bilingual education and this time will “stop La Raza.” The announcer gives no explanation of what exactly “stop La Raza” might mean.

Arizona’s ethnic studies ban targets classes that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government” or “resentment toward a race or class of people.” Since nobody has uncovered a single teacher instructing students to overthrow so much as a hall monitor, it’s safe to assume that what’s really irking the ban’s supporters is the part about resentment. And resentment toward whom? Well, white people.

Yes, the fellow who pledged to “stop La Raza” has succeeded in keeping a cadre of roughly 25 teachers in Tucson from suggesting that Anglos have been something other than always honorable in their treatment of minorities in U.S. history. Put bluntly, Arizona banned ethnic studies to protect the reputation of the white majority.

It’s true that teaching U.S. history and literature with an eye toward a minority experience can give students misgivings about the wisdom of the majority, past and present. But particularly in the Southwest, it’s impossible to understand history without acknowledging the subjugation and marginalization of minority groups. Nor can one understand the greatness of the American experiment without seeing it as a 200-year-long struggle to overcome injustices and live up to the highest ideals of its founding documents. Surely one doesn’t have to believe in the infallibility of white people to be pro-American. Besides, if teaching U.S. history means protecting the reputation of the majority by telling the story strictly from their perspective, wouldn’t that be a type of ethnic studies?

I was pondering this question last week while walking the halls of the world-renowned Native American collection at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. A new exhibition, “Beyond Geronimo: The Apache Experience,” includes the story of the Chiricahua band of Apache Indians, who were forced off their lands in Arizona in the 1870s and held by the government as prisoners of war from 1886 to 1913. Even more moving, however, was an exhibition about Indian boarding schools in the late 19th century. It documents with first-person immediacy the federal government’s late-19th century policy of forced assimilation, in which Indian children were removed from their homes to be transformed into Americans in the mold of Anglo Protestants. School officials began by cutting off the children’s long hair, and they drilled them in a curriculum that did all it could to destroy native language and culture.


Over the last century, things have improved, and the majority has learned there is more than one way to be American and that whites are not the de facto standard-bearers of true patriotism. So you would think that Arizonans would know better. They wouldn’t pass laws telling Mexican American children that they’re not “one of us” but nonetheless had better think and act like “we do.”

The banishment of Tucson’s Mexican American studies program suggests otherwise. Whatever its faults, the program was not anywhere as dangerous as a white majority that simultaneously fights to protect its power and the purity of its reputation.