Erasing Ethnic Studies
How Arizona's bill to kill multicultural education is a self-fulfilling prophecy
Note, I am not writing as a representative of any academic unit at UNM. Still, you ought to know my position. I am an assistant professor of American Studies and Chicano Studies (I hold a joint appointment in the American Studies Department and the Chicano/Hispano/Mexicano Studies Program).
It was a peculiar experience to read Arizona's House Bill 2281. This bill threatens to ban ethnic studies in Arizona. It was even stranger to read Arizona Superintendent Tom Horne's open letter to the citizens of Tucson, which calls for the termination of the city's public schools’ ethnic studies programs. These documents paint ethnic studies scholars and students as seditious ideologues. Such descriptions bear little resemblance to the vibrant and diverse Chicana/o studies community that I have participated in for years. I felt as if someone was talking about me and people I know well without ever having engaged us in a conversation, with no idea about what we actually do.
Worse still, the serious, extensive debate and dialogue that I see in Chicana/o studies classrooms and journals contrasts with the bill and, especially, Horne's letter. Both are fundamentally ideological and anti-intellectual and based on the premise that if we just do not talk about or examine real social inequalities, they will cease exist. However, as the ostrich with its head in the sand eventually learns, the world continues to exist even if you ignore it. It is only in the context of gross conceptual slippage and/or intentional "slight of hand" that the conflations within the language of the law could make any sort of sense. The law prohibits courses designed for pupils of a particular ethnic group and requires public school pupils be taught to treat and value each other as "individuals" and not "hate other races or classes of people." It further prohibits classes that "advocate ethnic solidarity" and the "overthrow of the U.S. government."
If there are resentments based on inequalities based in social categories such as race/ethnicity, class, and gender and sexuality, shouldn’t our efforts be aimed at correcting those inequalities rather than squelching talk of them? The irony of the Arizona's educational reforms is that they reproduce the very social divides that they deny. Proving this point, my friend and colleague Patricia Perea asked rhetorically if ethnic studies promotes resentment. She then drew on her experience to show the opposite:
If there are resentments based on inequalities based in social categories such as race/ethnicity, class, and gender and sexuality, shouldn’t our efforts be aimed at correcting those inequalities rather than squelching talk of them?
“I never learned a single thing about my history as a Mexican-American. By the time I graduated high school, I resented teachers, classes and textbooks. Where was my story? To make a long story short, resentment does not begin with ethnic studies. It begins with the lack of ethnic studies.”
The author of this statement would have greatly benefited from a class like those included within Tucson public school's curriculum. Students in my ethnic studies classes at UNM come from diverse economic and geographic backgrounds and have self-identified as Chicana/o, Hispanic, Mexicana/o, Anglo, White, African American and Asian. They seek out our classes because they are interested in Chicana/o cultural studies, politics, social justice and immigration. In our discussions, students explore how social categories such as race and ethnicity have shaped our society and notions of national identity. They leave the class feeling affirmed as rightful participants in the American polity.
The ongoing national debates over immigration demonstrate that Chicana/o studies has much to offer. If Arizona's state legislators had carried on a serious conversation with Tucson's Mexican-American studies students and teachers, they would likely have given them good advice prior to the passage of Senate Bill 1070. That is the bill that requires law enforcement to ascertain the immigration status of people who appear "suspicious" of being undocumented, thus making racial profiling virtually inevitable. Moreover, Chicana/o studies students would not be surprised by the targeting of immigrants and ethnic studies. After all, we studied similar experiences in the past.
Arizona's superintendent would also learn a lot in a sincere dialogue with Chicana/o studies students. His open letter caricatured the symbols of the Chicano civil rights movement and the work of extraordinarily important figures such as education scholar Paulo Freire and historian Rudy Acuña in a manner that would probably not have passed the academic muster of peer review. His weaknesses were painfully evident in a CNN interview that featured a debate between Horne and Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson. The Arizona superintendent was either playing out of his intellectual league or his statements were maneuvers aimed at political gain rather than accuracy. Particularly reprehensible were his repeated and inappropriate quotation of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a way that misrepresents the civil rights leader's words and body of work.
Of course, I would be naive to think that politics does not play a role in what is happening in Arizona. Superintendent Horne is a candidate for state attorney general and resides in a state where the immigration debate verges on anti-Mexican hysteria. The political gain of deploying such emotions explains why Horne and the law's supporters are specifically targeting Chicana/o studies in their rhetoric rather than other disciplines that also examine social inequality such as sociology or history. More specifically, Tucson students' ongoing defense of their program demonstrates a real need for such classes. The politicians of Arizona owe their constituents better than the flawed thinking and sordid politics that produced House Bill 2281 and Senate Bill 1070.
Michael L. Trujillo is the author of The Land of Disenchantment: Latina/o Identities and Transformations in Northern New Mexico (2009, University of New Mexico Press). His teaching and research areas include ethnography, critical regionalism / globalization, Chicana/o studies and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.