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.