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?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Are U.S. D.A.s seeking justice or reelection?

So, say you're a teacher. And state law requires you to teach about contraception if you teach sex ed. But then your county's district attorney proclaims that if you teach about contraception, he'll press criminal charges.

Excuse the expression, but you're screwed--stuck between the law and a lawyer.

This is the situation facing teachers in Juneau County, Wisconsin, where D.A. Scott Southworth is claiming such instruction encourages sex among minors.

Come Mr. D.A., tally me (condoms on) bananas

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported on the impasse:

The new law "promotes the sexualization - and sexual assault - of our children," Southworth wrote in a March 24 letter to officials in five school districts. He urged the districts to suspend their sex education programs and transfer their curriculum on anatomy to a science course.

Southworth believes classroom discussion of how to properly use contraceptives will lead not only to sexual activity between minors, but sexual assault on minors. In a letter (PDF) to school districts in Juneau County, Southworth warned,

The teacher need not be deliberately encourage [sic] the illegal behavior: he or she only need be aware that his or her instruction is "practically certain" to cause the child to engage in the illegal act. Moreover, the teacher could be charged with this crime even if the child does not actually engage in the criminal behavior. Depending on the nature of the child's behavior, the teacher could face either misdemeanor or felony charges with maximum punishments ranging from 9 months of jail up to six years of prison.

It's preposterous that teachers would reasonably believe that instruction on contraception could lead to sexual assault. According to data from the University of Wisconsin Health Institute, Juneau County's teen birth rate is approximately 25% higher than the state average, and the county ranks 62 out of 72 Wisconsin counties in the Institute's health behaviors index (which includes such data as chlamydia infection rates, smoking rates, smoking during pregnancy, binge drinking, and the teen birth rate). Clearly, this is a county where young people need some instruction on health.

Apparently some Juneau County parents have their heads buried firmly in the sand. The Juneau County Star Times reports,

Jim Schmidt, a member of the Juneau County chapter of Pro-Life Wisconsin and father of seven, believes that parental involvement, not school curriculum, is what will have the greatest effect on sexual health outcomes.
"They haven't had [sex education] in Necedah schools for 15 years and everything is fine," he said. "That is a parent's responsibility. If they don't know how to handle it, they need to talk to their doctor."

Ranking in the bottom 14% in a state's health index is not an indicator that "everything is fine." Indeed, those states (typically the most religious) that discourage teaching about contraception have the highest rates of teen birth.

District attorneys overstepping their powers

Southworth's behavior is part of a trend of D.A.s in the U.S. bringing the power of their offices to bear on families and individuals in ways that might not be entirely appropriate. Southworth holds an elected office, as do all D.A.s in my home state of California.

D.A.s overstepping their power has raised considerable concern in my part of the country. A Facebook group called "What a Difference a DA makes" claims that "The DA is the most powerful elected official most voters have never heard of." The Facebook group was created by the American Civil Liberties Union's District Attorney Campaign, whose webpage explains,

Voters from every county in California elect one attorney whose job it is to speak "for the people" in the criminal courts. The primary duty of the District Attorney (DA) is to promote the safety of our communities by prosecuting those who break the law. As the "peoples' lawyer," the DA is supposed to serve the interests of all members of the community and to enforce the laws without prejudice, bias, or political purposes.
A great deal of power and responsibility lies in the hands of District Attorneys. Yet most voters don't pay close attention to the positions of DA candidates. Many voters simply skip this box on the ballot. Even editorial boards of newspapers often do not bother to endorse DA candidates. Without involvement from voters, community organizations, opinion leaders and the media, the immense powers that we put in the hands of DAs will go unchecked.

Definitely check out the Facebook group's news feed, which contains an alarming number of reports of D.A.s overstepping their bounds.

In my own county of Yolo, California, for example, D.A. Jeff Reisig's office has come under increasing scrutiny for potential discrimination against defendants of color, as well as what some are calling the "Cash for Convictions" program, and others call Balance Sheet Justice. Under this program, counties receive grants for convictions of people for certain categories of crimes, which means Reisig's office has an incentive to seek conviction over justice, and indeed, Yolo County has one of the highest rape prosecution and conviction rates in the country--and according to Rev. Ashiya Odeye of the local Justice Reform Coalition, arrests of white men for rape have dropped dramatically during Reisig's tenure, while prosecution of men of color for rape has increased sharply.

August 2009 rally in Woodland, California, against Yolo County D.A. Jeff Reisig

Of particular concern in my county are the shooting by undercover sheriff's deputies of Luis Gutierrez and the 378-year prison sentence given to dark-skinned Nepali-American Ajay Dev, who was convicted of rape, while white child molester Brett Pedroia served only 8 months of a one-year prison sentence.

In the Dev case, the D.A.'s office charged the defendant with 92 crimes, which all but ensured the (almost entirely white) jury would perceive Dev as guilty as soon as the trial began. Dev's supporters maintain he is innocent of the 750 rapes of which he was accused by a woman whose U.S. citizenship apparently hinged on Dev's conviction.

Quick--who's your D.A.?

If you live in the U.S., there's a good chance your jurisdiction has a district attorney, and a good chance as well that you have the opportunity to elect candidates to this office. Unless you want someone like Southworth or Reisig currying political favor through interference in curriculum and health or through heavy-handed prosecutions that may favor convictions over justice, start your research now. To help you get started, the ACLU offers some really good questions to ask candidates for district attorney.


I'm fed up with transparent abuses of the legal system; the increasing misrepresentation of U.S. history for political ends; and the general state of science, health, and history education in U.S. primary and secondary schools. I believe these three challenges are connected. Expect to see more from me on these issues, but particularly the public use, misuse, and abuse of history, very soon.

Monday, April 12, 2010


I wrote a month and a half ago about how I've been turning the ship of my life to a new heading, about how weighted down I feel and how it's going to take a long time to make the next turn.

As excited as I am about starting the new job and all the life changes that will accompany it, and as deliberate as I'm trying to be in the changes I'm making, the universe keeps throwing spanners into the works. First we gave up the dog. Then last week I dealt with some workplace drama that I shouldn't write about here, but that only made the move from my office to the cube farm all the worse and made several aspects of my job less attractive than they've ever been and heightened the feelings of--and this is the first time I've put a word on them--betrayal (by the institution, by individuals) I've been feeling all along about the move and other recent changes to the teaching center.

Add to this the necessity of finishing up some projects at work, of saying goodbye to people and places that mean a lot to me, and the thousand little things that need to be done before one moves and changes employers--health insurance worries, doctors' visits, finding and renting a new place, setting up utilities, arranging the move, finding a new preschool, courses to plan (books to order by Thursday!), and so much more--and I'm feeling pretty overwhelmed.

I've been looking at this time of transition as an opportunity to declutter--physically, emotionally, and mentally--but I'm thinking a better metaphor is detoxing. Decluttering is about shedding stuff--which I'm ready to do, but which is hard--while detoxing is about taking in good stuff (fruits and veggies, literal and metaphorical) and exercising (physically and mentally) to clear out all the built-up toxins.

It's easier, in other words, for me to think about moving on to good stuff than it is to think about ridding myself of stuff that isn't right for me. Most visible case in point: Jacob (the new puppy) vs. Obi (the unpredictable dog). I still cry when I think of how much I miss Obi, but when I focus on acclimating Jacob into our lives, I'm much more positive.

I suppose this should have been obvious to me all along, but no. I need to keep myself future-focused as a way of detoxing from all the stuff and stucknesses and monsters I'm ready to leave behind me.