Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer just signed a law making it illegal for the state’s public schools to teach ethnic studies classes. Tom Horne, the state superintendent for public instruction who supported the legislation, said, “Traditionally, the American public school system has brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals, and not on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds. This is consistent with the fundamental American value that we are all individuals, not exemplars of whatever ethnic groups we were born into. Ethnic studies programs teach the opposite, and are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism.”
Let’s examine the Arizona law and Horne’s support of it. First, the American public school system does not have a long history of bringing together students of different backgrounds. In fact, until 1954, our schools were segregated (legally, much later in practice), with Whites getting the most resources and Blacks and Latinos getting the leftovers. If it had not been for brave people like former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, public schools might still be legally segregated. It takes courage to stand up to those who benefit from status quo discrimination.
Second, the fundamental value of which Horne spoke — that we are all individuals — is written in our Constitution but is thrown out of focus by a history of discrimination. In fact, the Constitution did discuss groups, saying that members of the Black group should be counted as three-fifths of a person. The residue of discrimination persists, with minority groups often held to account for the behavior of a single individual. The White worker, for example, who shows up late is lazy, while a tardy Latina is an exemplar of a supposed culture of laziness. Erasing the heritage of the minority groups that have suffered discrimination will not end the discrimination.
Third, ethnic studies programs do not teach ethnic chauvinism. Courses in ethnic studies enrich the learning process of all children. They teach young people to accept other cultures and respect ideas and traditions that differ from their own. They also provide senses of empowerment and security for racial and ethnic minorities. People often ask me, “Why do we need to have classes on ethnic studies or diversity? Why can’t we just have “classes”? The problem is most of the curriculum in the United States focuses on White America and does not speak to the history, culture and traditions of racial and ethnic minorities. It would be wonderful if every school, college and university adopted an inclusive curriculum that represented all Americans. However, what we have is curricula for one segment of the nation.
Empowering racial and ethnic minorities is what these racist policymakers in Arizona fear most. Horne suggested that ethnic studies programs encourage Latinos to rise up. At their core, these new laws in Arizona, including the controversial law that allows police to check the immigration status of anyone they think might be here illegally, are a desperate effort to maintain a discriminatory status quo. The past two years have witnessed an empowered Black man ascend to the presidency. We have also seen the appointment of the first Latina to the Supreme Court and a growing number of racial and ethnic minorities in government roles of all sorts. Above all, we have read the Census projections that the country will be majority minority by 2050. For those who have staked their identity on a system that favors them over all others, such projections are dire. They want their country back and are stooping to low levels to take it back.
My research relates to issues of race in higher education. I study these issues historically and in the present. I try my best to make sure that all students’ experiences and cultures are represented in my classes. I do this because it empowers students. We all need role models to whom we can relate and sometimes they need to be the same race, gender or from the same socioeconomic class. To be taught in a classroom where only the great achievements of Whites are covered is wrong. All of us should have the opportunity to feel good about our backgrounds and see how they coalesce with the experiences of others. It’s possible to have cultural pride and also feel good about being an American.
So, let’s be honest. The real reason Arizona policymakers don’t want ethnic studies taught in schools (or anywhere else for that matter) is that they are afraid that a sense of empowerment and any success for racial and ethnic minorities mean less success for them. It’s not a zero-sum game, though. Our neighbor’s success is our success.