Thursday, May 6, 2010

More from Arizona: Ethnic Studies under fire

Thanks to Pete Rock for pointing this news out to me -- somehow I'd missed this item, although it is getting difficult to keep up with the flow of bloggable material from Arizona. The state legislature last week passed a bill written by state school superintendent Tom Horne that forbid public school systems from teaching courses that:
• Promote the overthrow of the U.S. government.
• Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
• Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
• Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals.

Horne targeted the Tucson Unified School District's ethnic studies program specifically with this law. While the program offers courses on African-American, Asian, Native-American, and Latino studies that are open to all students, regardless of their own background, Horne is really only going after the the Latino program -- which, in fairness, provocatively echoes the Chicano Studies movement of the 1960s and 70s by calling itself "La Raza." As Horne explained to one Arizona newspaper, his bill "would ban La Raza studies because it's a course that's aimed primarily at members of one race, and we have testimony that this has promoted resentment toward one race."

For Horne and other conservatives, this bill is all about stamping out what they see as a left-wing separatist agenda among some of the Latino faculty in Arizona school systems. The part of the bill about teaching revolutionary doctrines in public school sounded to me at first to be an incongruous lifting of the exact same language in education law of the 1940s and 50s (designed to remove Communist teachers), but it actually is just a swipe at some Tuscon faculty who have allegedly placed portraits of Che, Fidel Castro, and Pancho Villa in their classrooms. Although his position oversees the curriculum of the state's public school system, Horne seems particularly concerned about indoctrination taking place under his nose -- he spoke out on Arizona television against President Obama's recorded talk to the nation's school children last year. (You know, the one that turned the nation's children into Red Guards for Obama's Cultural Revolution. Or kick-started his version of Hitler Youth. Or whatever.)

The sinister plot to implant the children of America's immigrants with race hate and Fidel-ism started in, of all places, the Nixon Administration. With the passage of the Ethnic Studies Heritage Programs Act in 1972, the federal government provided funds and curriculum suggestions for exactly the kinds of courses under fire in Arizona. Horne, who is running for state attorney general as a Republican, may be surprised to learn that back then, the GOP actually tried to court ethnics (ok, white ethnics) to eat into the Democratic voting base.   

Clearly, that kind of Republican is not indigenous to the deserts of the Southwest. But Horne's no yokel. He has a B.A. and J.D. from Harvard. I'm sure that in calling the Tuscon program racist he doesn't think he is one, too. Rather, he reflects conservatives' embrace of the fractured logic of "color blindness," a topic I should probably tackle in its own right with its separate post later. This logic, too, has its roots in Nixon's America, when whites tried to find a more comfortable explanations for their resistance to desegregation initiatives like busing and affirmative action. It argues that while racism may exist, racial consciousness by a minority to address greater injustice that happened in the past only exacerbates racial tension in the present. In other words, blame the victim for decrying their victimhood. If only minorities accept the fact that in the here and now race doesn't matter then, well, race won't matter. Furthermore, in this conservative frame of mind, learning one's race mattered quite a bit in Arizona's (and the nation's) past can't help but radicalize the students of particular races because it offers but two outcomes of the lesson: renewed racial identification, and/or resentment of white oppressors past and present.

As the rest of the Arizona legislature's output this term indicates, this line of argument is nonsense. All the same, Tom Horne's bill highlights how limited the conceptual progress for integrating non-Europeans into the national community has been since the start of last century. We are much less likely to see race as determinant in individual lives than we were in past decades (unless, maybe, you're David Brooks). But we're no better at seeing race as something artificially and historically imposed upon groups of people, with boundaries of categorization that shift over time. I'm not even sure something like the Tuscon plan is the best approach. But I'm certain the "color-blind" alternative only offers an opportunity for whites to cynically walk away from any responsibility to consider race at all -- past, present, or future.

1 comment:

  1. Great commentary, Nehls - glad to have new posts to chew on. A few thoughts...

    It was okay to 'pander' to ethnic groups in the '70s because they were a minority demographically speaking. The programs would be limited by their very nature and have little real impact on 'real' America. It's a much different proposition when the relationship is flipped and those voices opposed to the traditional narrative are more numerous than those trying to preach it. 2020 (or whenever it is that 'minorities' are supposed to outnumber 'whites') can't get here soon enough.

    Couldn't agree more with your arguments about 'color blindness' - it really is the natural evolution of whiteness as the norm, though ironic since it requires an ahistorical viewpoint. But what else is new.

    It will be interesting to see whether the growing Latino population is able to advance the 'conceptual progress' of how we understand racial and ethnic differences as compared to African-Americans. One, because they don't quite fit into the predominate black-white dichotomy of American race relations (though this is in itself simplistic, and, simply, wrong). And two, because the diversity of experiences and peoples that fall under the grouping, 'Latino', nearly robs it of any meaning from the very beginning. I'm thinking specifically of the GOP's efforts to court the 'hispanic vote' in recent elections and the less than hoped for results they generated. Karl Rove's micro-targeting campaign strategies might need a little tweaking.