Revolution #261, February 26, 2012

Battleground Tucson: The Fight for Ethnic Studies

On Tuesday, January 10, as students, community supporters, Occupiers, and others protested outside, Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) voted to suspend their Mexican-American Studies (MAS) Program indefinitely. Teachers arrived at school the next day under orders not to teach race, ethnic, or oppression-themed lessons. Two days later, Latin American, Chicano and other literature and history books used by the program were confiscated—put in boxes and removed from classrooms as horrified students watched.

Among the banned books: Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, one of the most important books on popular education in the 20th century; Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, the highly regarded history of Mexican-Americans by historian Rudolfo Acuña, which has been used as a standard text in college-level curricula for Chicano Studies for many years; and Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado, described as the "first primer on one of the most influential intellectual movements in American law and politics."

Hundreds of students have walked out of Tucson high schools in protest, and university students, authors, educators, and others across the country are demanding the return of the books and restoration of Mexican-American Studies.

Making Ethnic Studies Illegal

This leap in the assault on ethnic studies goes back to 2010 when the governor of Arizona signed HB 2281 into law just after approving SB 1070,1 the anti-immigrant law that requires police to demand proof of legal residency from anyone they "stop, detain or arrest" if police suspect that person is an undocumented immigrant. The author of HB 2281, Tom Horne, then-Superintendent of Public Instruction for Arizona and now the state Attorney General, made it no secret that the law was aimed at eliminating the TUSD Mexican-American Studies program and ethnic studies programs in general. HB 2281 (now A.R.S. 15-112) declares that school districts cannot include in their instruction any course or classes that "promote the overthrow of the United States government"; "promote resentment toward a race or class of people"; "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group"; or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

Horne's successor, John Huppenthal, whose campaign ads in 2010 vowed to "Stop La Raza," took up where Horne left off. He hired an independent education consultant to audit the program. When the auditors concluded that Mexican-American Studies did not violate the law, that in fact students taking MAS classes did better in school and had better graduation rates than students who did not; and that MAS should be expanded, Huppenthal deliberately disregarded the report, carried out his own investigation, and determined that MAS "promoted resentment toward a race or class of people." He demanded that TUSD shut it down or face the penalty—a 10 percent cut in its budget amounting to $15 million.

TUSD filed an appeal and on December 27, an Administrative Law Judge2 ruled on the side of Huppenthal, who immediately cut $4.9 million from the TUSD budget and said he would continue to withhold funds until TUSD complied. In the wake of all that, the board decided to suspend the program.

"Our Founding Fathers Should Never Be Disparaged"3

We're talking about the courses and the concern over disparaging [disrespecting] our founding fathers while we are teaching systematically that students are oppressed in America, that they can't succeed because the deck is stacked against them. Those two things are core features of what we're talking about. (John Huppenthal)

Honestly they've [the MAS classes] opened my eyes. They're trying to say that they teach racial resentment. But it's the opposite. They're trying to tell us that we can't teach oppression if it's not emotionally balanced. How can it be emotionally balanced? You're talking about a whole history of you being oppressed, your people. It's opened my eyes to a whole new world.... (TUSD high school student)

The Tucson school district is 60 percent Latino. The drop-out rate for Latino students is almost twice that of white students. Latino students tell stories of teachers who say to them, "You will not succeed, you should just drop out of school and work in a restaurant and wash dishes." Mexican-American Studies was created as the result of a lawsuit brought against TUSD for discrimination against Mexican-American students. MAS teachers and administrators developed a program that taught about the history of the oppression of Mexican-American people in an attempt to overcome the legacy of that oppression. The program sought to meet the needs of Latino students so they could learn and thrive academically. Why is that illegal?

The attack on Mexican-American Studies and other ethnic studies programs today is driven, in fact, by the need to reverse the accomplishments of the ethnic studies programs first established in the 1960s. As we wrote in an earlier article:

As the national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles of the 1960s developed and a revolutionary current emerged, one powerful expression was the hard-fought student strikes demanding courses, departments and schools of ethnic studies. While the students of oppressed nationalities had to fight just to get into the universities, what they confronted when they got there was an educational system which distorted or suppressed those aspects of history and present-day reality that challenged and put the lie to the bullshit about America's "shining example," and its "special place" in the world. They began at San Francisco State University in 1968, which saw the longest student strike in U.S. history, led by the Third World Liberation Front (a joint effort of African American, Asian American, Chicano, and student organizations of other nationalities). That strike established the first School of Ethnic Studies.

Ethnic studies programs, which later expanded to include women's studies, gender studies, etc., established a foothold where oppressed nationality students especially could for the first time learn about and be part of discovering their own history; the struggle and resistance; and the contributions to art, culture, science, etc. of Black, Chicano, Native American, Asian and other oppressed peoples in this country. This contributed significantly to bringing to light the truth that America's ultimate global domination rested on the foundation of the kidnap of millions and millions of African peoples and their enslavement in the "new world," the genocidal destruction of the Native American peoples, and the theft through war of 40% of the territory of Mexico as the start of a process of conquest that ultimately spanned the globe.4

As the U.S. attempts to maintain its empire in the 21st century, an ugly and vicious white supremacy is being promoted by some in the ruling class as a cornerstone of the social contract around which to cohere society. An essential element in the reassertion of white supremacy and blind patriotism is the need to restore that "official narrative" about America and its "special role" as the "good guys" in the world. To these reactionary forces, MAS and other ethnic studies programs in schools and on college campuses are an obstacle that must be eliminated. That the state of Arizona is imposing this "official narrative" by law is a very dangerous precedent if allowed to stand.

Walk-Outs, Teach-Ins, National Outrage and Librotraficantes

Hundreds of TUSD students under the threat of suspension walked out of Tucson high schools and middle schools to protest the shutdown of MAS. Occupy Tucson held a series of marches to the school district in support of the program.

I decided to walk out of class in support of Mexican-American Studies. I knew there would be consequences, but I didn't expect to be suspended for the remainder of the week.... Myself and other students who were suspended instead went to the university for class since we were suspended from Wakefield. I wanted to show that even though we weren't in school, we were still learning. And I would do it again because we deserve the chance to learn about our culture. If we have to stand up for our education, we will. (Eighth grade TUSD student)5

The student group UNIDOS held an all-day teach-in off campus on a school day. Students cut school to hear professors from the University of Arizona dig into questions of culture, critical thinking, and Chicano studies, the very topics that are now banned. "It would be illegal now for the teachers to teach us [Mexican-American studies], so we are coming here to learn all the things they don't want us to," said an 18-year-old participant. UNIDOS plans to hold regular teach-ins at the UofA, and UofA ethnic studies classes are welcoming school students who want to sit in.

Across the country, TUSD's confiscation of books woke thousands of people to Arizona's brazen attempt to impose an "official" U.S. history and to outlaw any critical questioning of it. The National Black Education Agenda declared in its petition, "Let's be clear, America's ruling elites want a 'post-racial' society in which white supremacy racism remains unchallenged." And it then went on to say that the ruling in Arizona "jeopardizes all forms of ethnic and gender studies that critically examine U.S. history."

Writers and activists from Houston declaring themselves Librotraficantes (Book Traffickers) will caravan from Houston to Tucson from March 12 to 18, "smuggling" in copies of the banned books. Banned authors who will participate in the Librotraficante caravan include Sandra Cisneros (Woman Hollering Creek), Guggenheim Fellow Dagoberto Gilb (Magic Blood and Woodcuts of Women) and best-selling author Luis Alberto Urrea (The Devil's Highway). (See for more on the caravan.) Many other banned authors are speaking out as well.6

Librarians who developed the celebrated library at Occupy Wall Street issued a call for donations of the banned books and funds to buy more of them to distribute in Tucson. The American Library Association and other organizations of academics, writers, civil libertarians, publishers, and booksellers have signed statements condemning A.R.S. 12-115, defending the MAS program, and upholding the right to intellectual freedom and freedom of speech.

The national network of Teachers Activist Groups called for a month of solidarity in support of Tucson's Mexican-American Studies Program. "In the month of February, we invite you to strike back against this attack on our history by teaching lessons from and about the banned MAS curriculum..." Nearly 1,300 K-12 teachers and college professors from across the country and internationally have pledged to teach these lessons. (Lesson plans can be found at "No History Is Illegal," Network of Teacher Activist Groups.)

These are very good and important developments. The resistance to this reactionary law must continue to grow and spread. For people broadly who want to see a world free of national oppression and the domination of one country over others, the attacks against ethnic studies must be resisted.

1. This law became the model for anti-immigrant laws in Utah, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Alabama. [back]

2. An administrative hearing is presided over by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who hears appeals to decisions made by state or federal agencies.  The judge is not part of the court system.  In Arizona, ALJ rulings have no legal standing and can only serve as recommendations to an agency. [back]

3. 2010 John Huppenthal interview posted on YouTube. [back]

4. "Arizona Law Targets Ethnic Studies," Revolution #201, May 16, 2010. [back]

5. "Students in walkout suspended," Arizona Daily Star, January 27, 2012. [back]

6.  See a collection of statements at American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL). [back]

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