The other Arizona battle: A new law makes ethnic studies classes illegal

Since when is it a bad to learn about different cultures?

Growing up, I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a Chicano studies class. My high school had one, but I avoided it like the plague. Although my family background was Mexican, I considered ethnic studies “too Mexican.”

Besides, I thought I knew all about my heritage. I knew my ancestors had created two great civilizations. I knew about the Alamo. And that was about it. The high point of my study of the history and culture of my people came in fourth grade, when Greg Mosman and I teamed up to make the pyramids out of sugar cubes.

In hindsight, I could have benefited from a Chicano studies course. It would have filled in some critical gaps in my knowledge, and provided me with a better context for understanding American history. Still, although I regret that my immaturity kept me from exploring my Mexican roots, I appreciate that my school district made the option available.

Students in Arizona are not so lucky. A few weeks after signing the most stringent immigration law in the country, Gov. Jan Brewer signed another law banning ethnic studies. HB 2281 prohibits any school district from offering classes that “promote the overthrow of the US government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, or ... are designed for students of a particular ethnic group.”

The law will take effect at the end of the year.

Arizona is not the only state whitewashing its public education. The Texas State Board of Education recently approved textbook guidelines that give short shrift to minorities in favor of a conservative ideology. There, as in Arizona, citizens are in the process of petitioning against the whitewashing.

Arizona’s HB 2281 was the brainchild of Tom Horne, the state superintendant, who apparently doesn’t like the Mexican-American studies program offered by the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). He says that it promotes “ethnic chauvinism” and “divides students by race.”

TUSD’s Mexican-American studies program is in fact open to all students. Unfortunately HB 2281 is all about politics, not education, and Arizona’s students are the losers in this cynical game.

Furthermore, I doubt that anyone is teaching kids in grades K-12 to overthrow the US government. To be sure, I checked the website of the Tucson Unified School District. Nope, nothing about overthrowing the US government there.

While HB 2281 includes an exemption for the Holocaust, it makes it illegal to promote class resentment of any race or class of people. So how are teachers supposed to instruct African-American students about slavery? Or Asian-American students about the internment camps? Many great authors, including Dickens, Wharton, and Dostoyevsky, delve deeply into themes of class resentment. Does teaching them add up to “promoting race resentment?” Are their books to be stricken from curriculums in the Grand Canyon State?

HB 2281 has already led to storm of controversy. Everyone from United Nations Human Rights experts to Latino civic groups to students in Tucson have condemned it as misguided, discriminatory, and unfair.

I might be inclined to view Mr. Horne’s concerns as legitimate if he had ever actually sat in on a Mexican-American studies course – something he acknowledged to The New York Times that he has not done. Alternatively, if Horne is dissatisfied with Mexican-American studies in the TUSD, why not reform the program, rather than outlawing it? Why not commission an independent review of the curriculum?

I also question Governor Brewer’s motives. According to the National Education Association, Arizona ranks 50th in expenditure per pupil in grades K-12.

The Phoenix Business Journal recently reported that the state is No. 2 in the nation in foreclosures. The state’s recent immigration law has led to convention and tourism losses estimated at $90 million. Doesn’t Brewer have more important things to do besides ensuring that Arizona’s schoolchildren do not learn about the Aztecs in a state that is one-third Latino?

Ethnic studies courses are important because mainstream curriculums often overlook the contributions of minorities. They help put the salad bowl that is the United States into perspective.

Ideally, all students would learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and César Chávez along with other great Americans. But until that day comes, niche classes fill the void. On top of that, researchers have found that minority kids are more likely to succeed academically as a result of a multicultural course of study.

Parents and students in Arizona should continue to protest HB 2281.

TUSD did the right thing to vow to continue its Ethnic studies program. Since Tom Horne is currently running for state attorney general, his measure strikes me as a calculated effort designed to score points with his conservative base. If he and Governor Brewer were truly concerned about Latinos resenting others, they wouldn’t pass laws aimed directly at Latinos. As an educator, Horne, of all people, should be committed to ensuring that all students reach their full potential.

The only “ethnic chauvinism” in play here seems to be the idea that children don’t need the opportunity to better understand minority history.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.

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