Arizona HB 2281

OPEN LETTER TO THE SAN DIEGO COMMUNITY

The recent passage of House Bill (HB) 2281 in Arizona, a law that essentially bans Ethnic Studies in K-12 public schools, has generated deep concern among educators, students and staff in our county. This bill caricatures the more than 700 such programs in the nation; along with SB 1070, it sends the message that people of color, indigenous people and immigrants are not welcome in this country and that their histories and cultures should be excluded from public education. While this bill was expressly written to target the Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District (and the 3% of the 55,000 students in the district who take such courses), its language implicates programs like American Indian Studies and African American Studies as well.
Both SB 1070 and HB 2281 draw upon a long history of the persecution of immigrants and the repression of cultures, from the banning of German bilingual schools in the 1920’s to the outlawing of American Indian religious and cultural expression. In other words, courses in Ethnic Studies (i.e. pertaining to African Americans, Chicana/os, Native Americans, and Asian Americans) demonstrate how such laws are historically reproduced over and over, often during times of economic recession and crisis. And perhaps that is why this body of knowledge seems to be so threatening. While we are saddened to see such hoary tactics resurrected, we have also been moved to organize, reflect upon our own programs in the county, and argue for an even greater need for such courses in the future.
HB 2281 claims that Ethnic Studies courses advocate the “overthrow of the United States government,” promote “resentment,” and cater to pupils of a certain ethnic group. The charge that Ethnic Studies promotes separatism and antagonism to the U.S. is made without proof. Superintendent Tom Horne decided to meet with Tucson teachers a day after the bill was signed into law. This disregard for the facts was evident in the hearings for the bill when many defenders, including the ACLU, were not allowed to present their arguments. Belatedly, Horne is now proposing to videotape Tucson classes under the guise of collecting evidence but with an obvious intent to intimidate—and further violate academic freedom and students’ learning environment.
In fact, Mexican American Studies courses were created in 1998 partly to alleviate the damages of de facto segregation in Tucson schools. With a 97% graduation rate (as opposed to the average 44% rate) and with 67% of students going on to post secondary education, these courses have been successful in mainstreaming students, and not in separating them as detractors claim. In addition, Ethnic Studies courses have always promoted understanding and not “resentment.” Students report that some classes begin a discussion of In Lak’ Ech, the Mayan phrase for “You are my other self.” Student Pricila Rodriguez notes that the courses are founded on “love and diversity,” but discuss” racism and sexism.” This formula for truth telling with a compassionate intention is a lesson Arizona lawmakers could use. Equally disturbing is that the Arizona legislature has used its power to attack a program that works, yet is not addressing longstanding problems such as grouping students by ability and language that may result in disparate impact by ethnicity.

For all of us in the county who teach or take these classes, a law banning history and fact is chilling indeed. Not only are certain human beings now illegal, but so are simple matters of fact, let alone opinion. Would the study of Jim Crow laws or Japanese Internment provoke “resentment”? Such silencing strategies would continue the incomplete historical narratives that Ethnic Studies proposes to remedy. The goal has always been more information and hence a more inclusive notion of American experiences and identities. Further, we would argue that the erasure of the study of masses of people in the U.S. has damaged all Americans, at its extreme in the identity formation of white supremacy and its attendant violence and exploitation. Ethnic Studies works to create a more inclusive society by deepening our understanding of each other and by producing engaged citizens.

One unintended outcome of these events is that we, like the students and teachers in Tucson, have been re-energized to act. While we formed the “SDESC” (The San Diego Ethnic Studies Consortium) in response to HB 2281 and demand that this law should be repealed, we have come to understand that we have work to do in our own county. San Diego itself is now a “majority minority” county with a Metro area that is 22% foreign born of which 42% of its children second generation. Reflected in the SDESC are some of the oldest programs in the nation. Chicano Studies was founded at SDSU in 1970, Black Studies at San Diego Mesa College in 1970, and Ethnic Studies at UCSD in 1980, one of the few PhD programs in the nation. As well, Ethnic Studies programs exist at San Diego Community College, CSU, and private university levels. We can boast vibrant African American, Chicano/Latino, Filipino, American Indian, and many other communities. Often, it was these very communities that came out to support the creation of Ethnic Studies programs. Yet we have almost no K-12 programs, given our demographics and given the possibility that such courses could improve the achievement of our students. The events in Arizona have given us the opportunity here to renew our commitment to programs K-12 and post-secondary and graduate level programs. While forty years of Ethnic Studies has given us a “different mirror” that begins to reflect the multiplicities of our national experience, Arizona demonstrates that these gains are never uncontested nor final. We need to bring all of our people and all of our history out of the shadows. In doing so, we have the chance to re-imagine a very different kind of world.

– San Diego Ethnic Studies Consortium
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