Thursday, April 29, 2010

Arizona tries to say adiós to ethnic studies

On Thursday, the Arizona State Legislature passed House Bill 2281, a measure that prohibits public school districts from offering classes that "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," "promote the overthrow of the United States government," "promote resentment toward a race of class of people," or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

I'm worried less about the specific language and provisions of the bill than about the motivations of the people who authored it and voted to pass it.

At the heart of the bill seems to be an uneasiness with Chicana/o studies. The bill was inspired in part by the Tucson school district's inclusion of Mexican American studies in its curriculum (which was previously called Raza Studies and included the works of educational reformers like Paolo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed), and has been supported vigorously by State Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne.

Mural photo by Urban Sea Star, and used under a Creative Commons license

According Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, the Raza Studies program students—approximately 1200 Latino students—outperformed their peers. Citing research by Dr. Augustine Romero, Rodriguez writes,

Horne is seemingly unaware that students from Raza Studies, who are taught about their indigenous cultures, consistently outperform students from all backgrounds at TUSD. They also have a very high college-going rate.

Paul Teitelbaum reported in February about students' appreciation for Tucson's raza studies program. Students and alumni, he writes,

countered the racist lies being made about the ethnic studies program, explaining the importance of oppressed youth learning their own peoples’ history. At least a dozen ethnic studies students and alumni recounted how important the program is/was to their academic success.

Students explained that the ethnic studies program combats the mythology incorporated in euro-centric history books that does little or nothing to portray the lives and history of the Indigenous people of Arizona. Ethnic studies programs teach oppressed youth the true history of how their land was stolen, their lives uprooted and their culture all but destroyed. Studying the rich history of the Indigenous peoples reveals the actual historical events that led to the ceding of one-third of Mexico to the expanding U.S. empire, and the forced removal of peoples from their ancestral homelands. “What we learn is the unique experience of Mexicanos who lived through the circumstances surrounding the defeat of Mexico and theft of Mexican land in 1848,” one student explained.

Dustin from Savage Minds wrote particularly eloquently about this issue when HB 2281's predecessor bill, Senate Bill 1069, was approved by a state senate committee in June 2009, so I'm going to quote him at length.

At risk for conservatives like [former National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Lynne] Cheney is not history, per se. After all, the Massacre at Sand Creek happened, the Constitution really did set black people’s worth at 3/5 that of white people’s, and police and militia really did attack the children of striking workers in Lawrence, MA, as they approached the train station en route to lodging away from the hunger and violence of the strike. In a place like Tucson, which was after all part of Mexico until the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, the history of “la Raza” is particularly relevant.

What is at risk is the notion that American history should not be just (or even in many cases) the facts of our past but should be a story that edifies national citizenship. [...] [To conservatives,] there is a narrative of history that Americans should share, and this narrative is one that celebrates the triumphs and high values of our nation while downplaying the embarrassments and shortcomings.

In Arizona, and in the Southwest in general, this narrative takes on special importance as an assimilative tool, because for the most part, it is not the history of the people who live there. Latino children in traditional US history classes get the dubious pleasure of sitting through months of a history that, unless by some miracle the teacher manages to get up to the 1960s and the agricultural worker strikes led by Cesar Chavez, is unlikely to contain a Latino name except as enemies. This narrative that largely excludes the Latino experience form American history defines our history largely as the history of white folks, predominantly male.

With such narrow-minded thinking behind the bill, why do I say I'm not worried about its actual provisions? Well, the bill specifically protects instruction about Native Americans from being impacted by the bill. It also retains the rights of schools to group students by English language ability, which sometimes results in ethnically homogeneous classes. Most importantly, it also teachers to continue discussions of "controversial aspects of history," "the holocaust," "any other instance of genocide," and "the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on ethnicity, race, or class." As far as I'm concerned, that's a loophole big enough to drive a César Chávez Day parade float through.

The bill makes a couple of asinine assumptions: First, that classes about a particular ethnic group are designed exclusively for instruction of that ethnic group, and second, that it's possible to recognize the full humanity and instructional needs of students without considering how their life experiences have been shaped by their ethnic background—by the privileges they have enjoyed or the prejudices they have endured.

As for that bit about current courses in Tucson or elsewhere promoting "the overthrow of the United States government"? That's slippery slope thinking. After all, instruction about Dolores Huerta, César Chávez, and the Mexican resistance to U.S. colonialism following the American annexation of Texas qualifies as a treasonous curriculum only if one equates any challenge to the status quo (including white hegemony in, say, agribusiness) with a direct assault on American governmental institutions.

And oh—one sign that your legislature might have passed a bill that is racist in intent? When folks at the Stormfront white supremacist forums (and no, I'm not going to link to the forums themselves) cheer and think about relocating to Arizona. At this moment I can't imagine a bigger red flag.

On a personal note, issues of race in the teaching of history are very much on my mind these days. Yesterday I submitted my textbook orders for the history courses—an introduction to American history through 1877 and a seminar on public history—I'll be teaching this fall. I'll be teaching at a mostly white regional public university in the Pacific Northwest, and it's unlikely many of the students in my courses will have had to grapple meaningfully with issues of race in American history; nor will they likely have been victims of everyday or exceptional racism. The bizarre rewriting of the state history curriculum by Texas conservatives and the fearful and racially-motivated HB 2281, along with countless other recent examples, will, I think, serve as excellent case studies for my students as we consider how history gets written—who writes it, who gets represented in mainstream narratives, and how. In fact, these two incidents of state intervention serve as excellent arguments for a broader embrace of public history—of history of, by, and for everyday people—over solely triumphalist national narratives.

So I want to know: No matter where in the world you live, where and how have you encountered what were, until 30 or 40 years ago, considered "alternative" histories of "minority" voices? And how are you representing your region's or nation's history to the next generation?


Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Wow... given the language of the bill, I would be enormously tempted to argue that it calls for rewriting most of the standard American history courses on the grounds that they advocate the ethnic solidarity of white Anglo-Saxons.

Bardiac said...

I think Pilgrim/Heretic nails it, but would broaden it to any course where white students do better on average than people of color. For example, on my campus, Intro Psych fails students of color at a high percentage. Why is that? Is there a bias towards white students? That's certainly the thinking from folks who are sophisticated about race and education. (The bias isn't necessarily conscious, of course.)

Jeff Mather said...

It's a shame what's going on in Arizona, and that's pretty much all I have to say on the subject... Except to say that the persistent worry by those with power in Arizona about recognizing any value in "the other" or (however you want to put this) "non-whiteness" makes most of their arguments about why they enact certain laws very suspect.

Your concluding questions may have been rhetorical, but I'll answer anyway. The "new histories" of the West have proved quite effective in reorienting readers away from seeing the traditional narrative of Anglo immigrants moving their way westward as the only one. (This has made many conservative readers rather uncomfortable.) By moving the focus from the "settlers" to the effects on the people and the land of the American West, those other voices and histories start to show through. Historians like Richard White, William Cronon and Patricia Nelson Limerick all come to mind, although none of them are people of color.

Nell Irvin Painter's Standing at Armageddon, which covers the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, was the first general history I read that seemed to treat all ethnic groups evenly in terms of narrative and agency. It's something that I still find very rarely in surveys and general histories -- no matter how good they are in other respects.

One place where I've consistently seen a multicultural, inclusive approach to American history has been in video documentaries on PBS. They're not all stellar, of course; but for the most part, the "American Experience" series brings in a plurality of voices, whether they're historical witnesses, authors, cultural critics, or scriptwriters. Often these documentaries focus on race or ethnicity and how these forces have shaped the evolution of American history.

Getting individuals talking -- or listening to the things that other people say -- is the first step in making the dominant narrative of American history actually match the experiences of people who lived it and shaped it.

Abi said...

This is extremely random as I stumbled across your blog by clicking the "next blog" button out of sheer boredom, but I was pleasantly surprised to find what you had to say to be quite interesting as well as address an important topic that I literally knew nothing about. I just wanted to say that I wish you were one of my professors lol :)