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Arizona ethnic studies bill and what it means to be American

An Arizona bill that would ban ethnic studies and social justice classes at state universities revives an enduring – and increasingly partisan – debate about what it means for the US to be a multicultural nation.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Participants walk during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march Monday in Phoenix.

Before she went to college, Felina Rodriguez knew little about her Mexican heritage.  

Her awareness of the role Mexico and Mexican-Americans played in the United States’ rise as a nation came mainly from high school history classes that, she says, glossed over the Mexican communities of the Southwest in the 1800s, and the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“Teachers would only say one sentence about it,” says Ms. Rodriguez, who grew up in Tucson, Ariz.

Only when she started taking courses on Mexican cinema, literature, and history at Arizona State University (ASU) did she begin to understand her ethnic culture’s place in the American story, Rodriguez says.

So when Arizona lawmakers on Friday introduced a bill that would expand restrictions on ethnic studies programs at state universities and community colleges, Rodriguez was upset.

“We need courses like these,” she says. “They help me be more able to understand how I came to be in the US from a long historical perspective. They helped me realize that it’s OK to be a combination of two cultures.”

House Bill 2120, authored by Rep. Bob Thorpe (R) of Flagstaff, would ban at the college level classes, events, and activities that “promote division, resentment or social justice toward a race, gender, religion, political affiliation, social class or other class.” The bill comes amid a pending court dispute over the original prohibition, which covered K-12 public schools.

Advocates of the bill say that courses that encourage students to see issues through a specific lens – like race, religion, or gender – foster resentment, not understanding. Opponents view the effort as an attempt from government to not only curb academic freedom, but also silence the variety of voices and narratives that comprise the US and its history.

The issue revives an enduring – and increasingly partisan – debate about what it means for the US to be a multicultural nation: Is it, as some on the right might say, about incorporating different cultures into a set of core principles that define America? Or is it about creating and sustaining an environment that embraces diverse but equal values, customs, belief systems, and experiences, as some on the left contend?

“That’s a worldview difference … [that] reflects a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives,” says Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president for the social policy and politics program at Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington. “I don’t know that this dilemma is going to be solved anytime soon.”

Assimilation and the Protestant work ethic

The question goes back to the late 19th - and early 20th -centuries, when nearly 30 million European immigrants came to the US in one of history’s largest mass migrations. Unlike the early northern European arrivals, who were mostly Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, most of the new immigrants came from eastern and southern Europe, and were Roman Catholic or Jewish. States like Arizona, however, that were once part of Mexico, followed a different trajectory – with many Mexican-American families tracing their roots back as far as 400 years.

The government’s policy then was to assimilate the newcomers. They called for immigrants to accept English as the national language, embrace liberal democratic principles, and observe the Protestant ethic of hard work, frugality, and moral virtue.

By the 1960s and ’70s, assimilation had begun to give way to the idea of retaining cultures, not simply tolerating them. Researchers of the time emphasized that no one culture was inherently more valuable than any other, and encouraged critical thinking from a variety of viewpoints.

The issue has since been dogged by fears that accepting a range of racial, religious, and sociopolitical perspectives would fragment American society.

Today, as the nation moves toward greater diversity, and in the face of partisan conflict following a contentious election year, the question takes on new significance, experts say.

In 2013, the share of the US population that is foreign-born hit 13.7 percent – the closest the country has come to the 1890 record of 14.8 percent, the Pew Research Center reports. As of 2016, babies of color outnumbered non-Hispanic white babies, and by 2020, “more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group,” according to the Census Bureau.

“It’s more important than ever to emphasize what we have in common now that we have more diversity,” says John Fonte, senior fellow and director of the Center for American Common Culture at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington.

Students should be taught to focus on the shared experience of all Americans, he adds, not the narratives that divide the nation. “Is it more important to say you’re American first or something else? That question is still the same question, whether it’s 1917 or 2017.”

Mr. Fonte’s remarks echo the motivation behind the Arizona ethnic studies bill, which would pull state funding from community colleges and state universities, as well as public K-12 schools, that fail to comply with the restrictions.

“Pure and simple, this is an anti-discrimination bill," said Rep. Mark Finchem (R) of Oro Valley to the Arizona Republic. "Slice up and dice up all of these people into groups and cater a particular message to each one of them, and all that does is advocate hate.”

Understanding new perspectives

To be sure, some students are distressed when presented with unfamiliar – and uncomfortable – points of view, says Christine Sleeter, a professor emerita at the College of Professional Studies at California State University, Monterey Bay, whose decades of research focus on multicultural education and teacher education.

“When students are first exposed to serious discussions of how racism is structured, how privilege is structured, they do sometimes get defensive and angry,” Professor Sleeter says. “But if you stick with it” – and if the class is run by someone whose goal is to bridge divides, not antagonize students, she adds – “you’ll come to understand this new perspective.”

Scholarship, by nature, should challenge students from different backgrounds to see the world from an outlook other than their own, she and others add. To have government regulate how educators fulfill that goal, they say, runs counter to democracy and academic freedom.

“The idea that you would let state legislatures decide what classes students are taking in colleges seems like a horrible idea, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on,” says Ms. Hatalsky at Third Way.

Studies have also shown that allowing students to explore their cultural histories in the context of the broader American story improves education outcomes for students from minority groups, says Patricia Gándara, a research professor of education and co-director The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. It’s also a crucial part of how they come to embrace American ways, she says.

“That’s the way people are integrated and come to feel patriotic,” Professor Gándara says. “Who wants to be part of a country that refutes they have any history?”

'I don't feel less American'

In many ways, the debate over Arizona’s ethnic studies bill reflects a bigger – and progressively partisan – battle over social and cultural values, Hatalsky says.

“There’s a certain segment of the country that feels very, very strongly that they’re losing a national identity, that that identity is being broken up into little tiny pieces, and that we aren’t one America anymore,” she says. An opposing narrative, she adds, tends to pit that segment against “a new American majority” of people of color, religious and gender minorities, and women.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle, Hatalsky notes, but as the nation prepares for a new administration, those two sides will continue to clash.

For some, like Fonte, restoring past policies and ways of life is the best path towards ending partisan conflict and bringing the nation together. He cites the World War II-era attitude of insisting that Americans of all backgrounds put the US and its principles first.

“There was no divided loyalty,” he says. “We have to do the same thing today.”

Rodriguez, the ASU student, advocates the opposite: an approach that welcomes multiple cultures and values. Despite embracing her Mexican heritage, she says, “I don’t feel less American at all.”

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