ARAGÓN AND ZEPEDA: Don’t ban ethnic studies

On Jan. 1, 2011, Arizona House Bill 2281 took effect, having passed the previous year on a wave of popular political rhetoric of racial tension and distrust. Republican Tom Horne, the author of the bill, accused ethnic studies curricula of “promoting resentment” and encouraging the overthrow of the U.S. government, a charge school officials in the state have decried as unfounded.

Last month, the Tucson Unified School District voted to enact HB 2281, buckling under threats of $15 million in annual fines if it did not comply. In the words of TUSD superintendent John Pedicone, the penalty “would have been impossible … to absorb.” During an administrative meeting conducted in early January, administrators advised teachers to avoid books that address themes of race, ethnicity and oppression, including Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

The bill is based on the misguided belief that ethnic studies promote a radical and hateful discourse. In fact, an ethnic studies curriculum does the opposite. It intends to shed light on the often ignored and dismissed experiences of millions of Americans, including the persecution minority communities have often faced throughout the course of history.

Although HB 2281 includes the caveat that it does not intend to censor instances of oppression, that is effectively what it has done. It has forced the TUSD — 75 percent of whose students are not white — to eliminate curricula that included over 50 books dealing with issues of ethnicity and social movements. Now, there will be no more “Ten Little Indians” by Sherman Alexie and no more accounts of American minorities’ histories by historians like Ronald Takaki and Howard Zinn.

Now, students in Arizona cannot count on public education to discuss Cesar Chavez and his leadership in the nonviolent American Labor Movement. Three-quarters of TUSD students will be taught that their place in history is limited to servitude and violence and will not be able to read narratives of their ancestors’ creative successes.

High school retention rates show the positive impact of ethnic studies. Studies have found that minority students enrolled in ethnic studies courses are more likely to perform better in all of their academic classes and are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college.

However, ethnic studies classes do not solely empower minority students: In their investigation into the value of the courses, the National Educational Association concluded that “both students of color and white students have been found to benefit academically as well as socially from ethnic studies” and that “the overwhelming dominance of Euro-American perspectives leads many students to disengage from academic learning.” A curriculum with demonstrated success including lessons on diverse cultures should be expanded, not eliminated.

HB 2281’s proponents have thus far relied on paranoid rhetoric, making unfounded speculations without ever setting foot inside an ethnic studies classroom. Though the bill attempts to couch its racist motives in legal terms as an effort to outlaw “treatment of pupils as anything but individuals,” they ignore the fact that history has rarely acted in accordance with this tenet. History has instead, time and again, grouped people in broad and generalized terms, often on the basis of race.

Though HB 2281 doesn’t explicitly ban books, books have nonetheless been taken from students, boxed up and sent to gather dust in a warehouse. Administrators claim these books are still available to the approximately 63,000 students in the district through the public school library system, but the system only holds a few copies of select texts. Teachers were also told they would be increasingly monitored to ensure they don’t violate the bill, thus turning classroom instruction into a fearful process in which threatened teachers shy away from any curricula that provides more than a slim view of another side of American history. This climate of censorship is unacceptable.

The elimination of these programs in Arizona is not just an affront to ethnic studies across the nation. It is also an affront to the entire purpose of educators: to teach students to think critically, creatively and deeply by endowing them with the tools to understand perspectives that differ from their own. The narratives found in ethnic studies texts and courses make up the many faces of American identity. States should not be allowed to edit our cultural history.

We urge Yale students, faculty and administrators to vehemently reject this bill and its implicit anti-intellectual crackdown. No history is illegal. As students and scholars, we cannot stand by as our nation’s history is rewritten. Rather than fear them, we must recognize the histories of ethnic minorities as crucial components to truly understanding both this nation’s history and its current state of affairs. Only then can we be said to fully promote liberty and justice for all.

KATHERINE ARAGÓN is a sophomore in in Timothy Dwight College. RAQUEL ZEPEDA is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.

Comments

  • River_Tam

    Well, the authors of this op-ed have resorted to innuendo and falsehoods in the absence of facts. Nowhere do they cite the bill in part or in whole.

    So, it’s up to me to put a link to it: http://www.azleg.gov/legtext/49leg/2r/bills/hb2281s.pdf

    Educate yourself:

    The relevant parts of the bill:

    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.

    and of course:

    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.

    Apparently, facts don’t matter to the authors of this op-ed.

  • alexg1321

    Thank you River_Tam, for your oh-so-kind kind attempt to educate us.

    Now, educate yourself by actually attending or witnessing a Chicano studies class. If you do, because then you’d see that the law should not apply to any ethnic studies course as it teaches respect for the history of other cultures but it is NOT “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” as anybody can take the class. (African-American studies classes are not designed specifically for African-American students, but rather anybody interested in learning it. And surprise, surprise, it does include the issues of racism and oppression.)

    Neither do ethnic studies courses promote the “overthrow of the government.” It’s obvious that the legislators did not educate themselves and walk into an ethnic studies class.

    So River_Tam, quit acting as if the law is so matter-of-fact. Let’s not kid ourselves here, the law is a result of paranoia and xenophobic fear on behalf of Arizona legislators that students of color are learning about their own histories. It’s history taught from the perspective of the conquered rather than the Anglo conqueror.

    So again, I encourage you to educate yourself. Attend a meeting with people who know more about this than you do, despite your apparent prowess in interpreting the language of policy.

    • River_Tam

      > If you do, because then you’d see that the law should not apply to any ethnic studies courses.

      If you read the actual text of the bill instead of relying on someone else to tell you what it says, you’d see that it doesn’t apply to ethnic studies courses.

      > Attend a meeting with people who know more about this than you do, despite your apparent prowess in interpreting the language of policy.

      I didn’t interpret jack. I copy and pasted the text of the bill. It’s up to you to achieve a state of semi-literacy and read it for yourself.

      • alsoanon

        Honest question: If the bill “doesn’t apply to ethnic studies courses,” as you claim, then why did “Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal [tell] the Tucson School District to end its Mexican-American studies program or lose $15 million in annual state aid” [http://harvardcrcl.org/2011/04/16/arizona-hb-2281-aims-to-end-ethnic-studies-in-tuscon/]?

        Changes is the curriculum are obviously happening as a result of this bill. Do you feel that prior to the bill, the curriculum encouraged racial resentment and the overthrow of the American government? You seem to be arguing that everyone is wrong about the negative effects of the bill because they aren’t interpreting its text correctly. But actual changes ARE happening, so its text is doing something. I think people’s point is that the changes themselves are bad — so someone out there is interpreting the bill in a harmful way.

        Also, I don’t see how subsection E(3) can ever comply with subsection A(3) if you didn’t want it to, because how do you prove something wasn’t “DESIGNED PRIMARILY FOR PUPILS OF A PARTICULAR ETHNIC GROUP”? That entire subsection seems totally based on interpretation of intent, which is problematically vague imo.

        • River_Tam

          Because the “Raza Studies” program was clearly designed to reduce drop-out rates among Latino students (why it was created in the first place), and thus targeted them directly.

          In some cases I can imagine it would be hard to prove whether a program is or is not created for a particular ethnic group. When you label the course “Raza Studies” and teach it in a combination of English and Spanish, it’s pretty effing obvious.

          For a counterpoint from a (Hispanic) teacher in Arizona, please read:

          http://tucsoncitizen.com/morgue/2008/05/21/85853-guest-opinion-raza-studies-gives-rise-to-racial-hostility/

          • alsoanon

            It probably says a lot about me and my incredibly liberal/radical public school education that I don’t find all of that as problematic as you do, but I get the point. Still, I’d really like to see the actual curriculum before I take one teacher’s anecdotal evidence about one class he witnessed in a city-wide program as irrefutable proof of its intentionally hostile racial agenda.

            And if the criteria you cite for identifying something as “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” — “designed to reduce drop-out rates about Latino students” — is a reason for getting rid of an academic program, isn’t that kind of an issue? Programs can get cut because they’re specifically designed to provide academic benefits to an underachieving minority group?

          • alsoanon

            And just to add more about my own perspective: I went to a public school with a very large Haitian student population. Each year, our history classes would include a significant section on Haitian history, or the Haitian immigrant experience, or contemporary Haitian politics, etc. It would be hard to say those courses weren’t designed primarily for the Haitian students at my school, but we all took them, and they were great. I know a lot about Haiti now, and as far as I can tell from my non-Haitian perspective they did a lot to increase communication and understanding between the Haitian and non-Haitian students. Under a bill like HB 2281, those classes would be gone, and that’s kind of a depressing thought.

  • desch

    It is appalling that any state should WANT to take away part of the curriculum that has done so much to keep students engaged. These histories are part of our histories, and we have a reasonability to include them in the dialogue about American Identity. Go Katie and Raquel!

  • elijah

    I think the problematic section of this law is clearly A, 4.: a prohibition against materials that “ADVOCATE ETHNIC SOLIDARITY INSTEAD OF THE TREATMENT OF PUPILS AS INDIVIDUALS.”

    Not, mind you, because advocating ethnic solidarity is always the right answer, but rather because this is so easily interpretable as banning anything that describes the oppression of a certain race by members of another race. A lot of literature that concerns ethnicity, racism and oppression can implicitly advocate for ethnic solidarity, or can at least be read in that way. And I certainly don’t trust the government of Arizona to decide what is or isn’t ethnic “advocacy.”

    • River_Tam

      You people (gasp!) all have reading comprehension problems. It’s not banning “ethnic advocacy”. It’s banning advocating “ethnic solidarity”, which can be clearly defined as:

      ADVOCATING THAT STUDENTS SUBSCRIBE TO A PHILOSOPHY OF ETHNIC SOLIDARITY (eg: “Por La Raza todo, Fuera de La Raza nada”).

      Describing oppression is specifically listed as something that’s NOT banned by the bill. My god, you people are such concern trolls.