Ethnic Studies in Arizona: The Story You Might Have Missed on New Year’s Day

Jose Vilson Jose 6 Comments

On January 1st, 2011, Arizona instituted a set of directives against certain segments of educational curricula in the state. This bill follows the already tenuous relationship between underrepresented people in their state and their government, with officials like Governor Jan Brewer in the forefront. People reporting on the bill have called it a “ban on ethnic studies,” a misleading title if I ever read one. While it serves well to draw attention to this story, the ramifications of this obfuscating bill reach far greater than the small district in Tuscon this bill was meant for.

Reading this bill, I noticed this section here (Subsection A):

A. A SCHOOL DISTRICT OR CHARTER SCHOOL IN THIS STATE SHALL NOT INCLUDE IN ITS PROGRAM OF INSTRUCTION ANY COURSES 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.
4. ADVOCATE ETHNIC SOLIDARITY INSTEAD OF THE TREATMENT OF PUPILS AS INDIVIDUALS.

Compare that to the language of this piece a few sentences down (Subsection E and F):

E. THIS SECTION SHALL NOT BE CONSTRUED TO RESTRICT OR PROHIBIT:
1. COURSES OR CLASSES FOR NATIVE AMERICAN PUPILS THAT ARE REQUIRED TO COMPLY WITH FEDERAL LAW.
2. THE GROUPING OF PUPILS ACCORDING TO ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE, INCLUDING CAPABILITY IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, THAT MAY RESULT IN A DISPARATE IMPACT BY ETHNICITY.
3. COURSES OR CLASSES THAT INCLUDE THE HISTORY OF ANY ETHNIC GROUP AND THAT ARE OPEN TO ALL STUDENTS, UNLESS THE COURSE OR CLASS VIOLATES SUBSECTION A.
4. COURSES OR CLASSES THAT INCLUDE THE DISCUSSION OF CONTROVERSIAL ASPECTS OF HISTORY.
F. NOTHING IN THIS SECTION SHALL BE CONSTRUED TO RESTRICT OR PROHIBIT THE INSTRUCTION OF THE HOLOCAUST, ANY OTHER INSTANCE OF GENOCIDE, OR THE HISTORICAL OPPRESSION OF A PARTICULAR GROUP OF PEOPLE BASED ON ETHNICITY, RACE, OR CLASS.

The writers of the bill clearly tried to include language to confuse people into thinking this bill doesn’t bolster the legacy of the dominant culture in this country. Yet, in more pragmatic terms, it fails the logic test, something I’m sure the lawmakers let happen on purpose. For instance, how can a class specifically addressing Chicano culture not be designed in one way or another for pupils of a particular ethnic group, especially in K-12 education during a child’s formative years? Learning about the legacy of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, a student might violate the tenets of Subsection A: the student might advocate for ethnic solidarity, might feel resentment toward a race or class of people, and perhaps might want to overthrow the United States government.

Even the word “might might not be enough.

After all, once a community empowers its citizens to think of the underrepresented cultures in this country, they might ask questions, like why The Black Panthers had to exist in the face of Black oppression, why John Lennon’s message of peace often (and literally) put him in the crosshairs of the FBI, or why Frederick Douglass and John Brown were so important to the discussions of slavery in this country as Abraham Lincoln. If nothing in this bill restricts or prohibits the instruction or discussion of controversial topics in the history of the United States, then wouldn’t the discussion of these groups and figures have to violate Subsection A in at least 2 out of 4 ways?

Unless of course, this law prohibits actual discussion. Then, this bill should state that, when discussing these topics, the teacher should read a few prescribed facts about the topics, sugarcoat it, have the teacher say “I went through this struggle, too” with no deep comparison or contrast, then give a multiple choice test where all the answers are given word for word before the test. That’s how I learned history for the majority of my years.

Plus, I also question what their definition of “overthrow” means when, throughout history, anyone seeking social or cultural equality has been called every synonym for anti-American, even as they ascend to the top of the most American post possible. Indeed, the current status quo promotes unity under the dominant culture’s perpetual dominance and its histories sacrosanct to the American identity instead of embracing the diversity of our histories, struggles, and progress in empowering everyone accordingly. When it comes to the solidarity of those who desperately need to understand their identity in the American context, lawmakers create bills to ensure division and directly peg those who seek community as anti-American.

Thus, it’s not a ban on ethnic studies; it’s a ban on education progress from the status quo. That’s a crime within itself.

Jose, who’s laying it all on the table …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 6

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  1. E. Santana

    Just to recap…
    When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to [improve] the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the [improve].

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to altar… it, and… laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by

    [they have] called together legislative bodies… for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with [their] measures.

  2. Matt

    “Out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties.” Said Franklin Roosevelt, “The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the the business of the Government, but hey have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business.”

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