Arizona’s ethnic studies ban whitewashes history

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When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed the infamous anti-immigrant bill into law, it was clear that people in that state lost their minds. But apparently that was not enough. Now, the governor just signed a bill into law on Tuesday that bans ethnic studies programs in the schools. Really?

The new law prohibits classes that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” Schools that fail to comply will lose their state funding.

A group of six UN human rights experts denounced the law on the grounds that people have the right to learn about their own culture and language. Meanwhile, the Arizona Department of Education has also announced that it will no longer allow teachers with “heavy” or “ungrammatical” accents to teach English. As the last state in the Union to recognize the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, Arizona suffers from a poor track record on tolerance.

The real target of the Arizona law is the Tucson School District, which offers coursework focusing on African-American, Native-American and Mexican-American studies, and the contributions of these groups in history and literature. Tom Horne, the head of the Arizona schools and Republican candidate for attorney general, supports the ban. Horne condemned ethnic studies as “ethnic chauvinism” and “high treason.”

Claiming that such programs encourage public school students to hate white people, Horne said “It’s just like the old South, and it’s long past time that we prohibited it.” Horne is right that it is just like the old South, but he’s getting it twisted. Rather, the anti-ethnic studies bill—along with the anti-immigrant bill—makes Arizona look like those racist Jim Crow states that resisted civil rights for blacks and the desegregation of the public schools in the 1950s and 1960s.

Back then, white Southern segregationists fought against the rights of African-Americans to vote, go where they pleased, and enjoy the same quality education as whites. It was a fear of a black planet, so to speak. Today, racist conservative whites are carrying on the tradition of their Jim Crow predecessors. They are afraid they are losing their “way of life” to darker-skinned people and Spanish-speaking immigrants, even though brown people were here first. With a population that is 40 percent minority, and with more Latino babies born than white babies, Arizona is set to become a majority-minority state by 2015. Texas, Hawaii, New Mexico and California already reached that threshold.

Similarly, in March the Texas Board of Education approved a curriculum change that essentially mandates a conservative, white-Christian bias in the teaching of social science. This has resulted in a wholesale removal of brown and black people from the textbooks. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and civil rights groups such as LULAC and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund were stricken from the books, although Justice Thurgood Marshall was allowed to remain. And conservatives unsuccessfully attempted to erase all references to hip-hop music from the history texts and replace it with country music. Conservatives defeated attempts by Hispanic board members to include more Latino figures in the curriculum, in that heavily Latino state. “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist,” said board member Mary Helen Berlanga. “They are going overboard, they are not experts, they are not historians,” she added. “They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world.”

Now, this is where ethnic studies really fits into the equation: A legacy of the civil rights movement, the ethnic studies movement came about in the 1960s and early 1970s at a time of empowerment for racial and ethnic minority groups. When Harvard students demanded black studies in 1968, faculty who were protectors of the status quo predicted the end of Harvard and of civilization. Ethnic studies serves a valuable purpose, which is to challenge the Eurocentric teaching of history, the social sciences and the humanities on college campuses. When youth know that their people were a part of American history, they will excel in their studies. And we all benefit when we learn about the heritage of all groups, and their contributions to the world. This is a matter of pride, not resentment.

As a high school exchange student in Japan, who later became an East Asian Studies major as an undergrad, I benefited from ethnic studies. While in college, I learned about the richness of Asian history and culture, and the Asian immigrant’s contribution to the American experience. After graduating from college, I worked for a bank and an advertising agency in Tokyo, and later on did human rights work and studied international human rights law in the U.K. My exposure to the teachings of other cultures and societies allowed me to better appreciate the diversity of the U.S. It also made me an effective world citizen who can operate across cultures.

At a time when we should increase our diversity efforts and teach our children to live together and understand one another, Arizona is sending the wrong message. This is not, as Pat Buchanan once claimed, “a country built basically by white folks.” By removing ethnic studies, Arizona spits in the face of the civil rights legacy, and tells people of color they don’t count, that their culture doesn’t matter.