ethnic studies week


For the Old Mole Variety Hour September 27, 2010

October first through seventh has been declared ethnic studies week, in response to recent attacks on such programs, particularly Arizona's bill 2281, and the latest social studies curriculum standards adopted in Texas. But ethnic studies occupies the intersection of several other fields that are themselves objects of attack, including public education and immigration. As the world suffers the ongoing crisis brought on by stagnation of the productive economy and the inability of financialization or credit to compensate for that stagnation, people look for scapegoats and easy solutions.

The Arizona law prohibits courses that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. 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.” Organizers of Ethnic Studies Week note that "To read these words, without taking into account their political context, one might be led to believe it is an innocuous, if unnecessary law."

Those first two clauses, about not promoting overthrow of the US government or resentment toward a a race or class of people, refer to no actual courses that I –or any educator I know—has ever encountered, and thus seem unneccesary indeed, unless they are designed to suggest that there might be courses that do these things. Similarly, since there's no logical reason why advocating ethnic solidarity should be seen as opposing the treatment of students as individuals, the law's phrasing again suggests that perhaps its purpose is to promote the mistaken notion that there is indeed some tension between these things.

But statements by sponsors and promoters of the law, notably Arizona education superintendent Tom Horne, make clear that one of its goals is to ban the Tuscon Unified School District's ethnic studies programs. Half of Tuscon's students are Latino, and because fewer than 60% of Latino adults in the US have a high school diploma, the district has made special efforts to reverse the high dropout rate among Latino students. Tuscon's Mexican American Studies program has succeeded in graduating 97% of students and sending most of them on to college. Unlike many ethnic studies programs, then, which aim to remedy imbalances in curriculum for all students, Tuscon's program is targeted toward students particularly at risk from the deadening and whitewashed curriculum mandated at most schools in the US, and the program seems to be successsful in its goal of providing a "truly equitable education." Although the law means that schools that continue ethnic studies programs will face a 10 percent cut in their state funding, the reaction so far has been to make the courses even more popular, drawing nearly twice the number of students this year as last, including many students who are not themselves Mexican American, since the program is open to all.

Meanwhile, in Texas , the kinds of curricular biases that make ethnic studies programs necessary have been pushed even farther by the social studies curriculum changes passed in May by that state's board of education. And because Texas is so large, textbook publishers tend to tailor materials to that market, making its standards especially influential.

The changes in the Texas curriculum standards have been the focus of considerable attention, with editorials in the New York Times and other national reporting condeming the rightward tilt of the standards that now require, for instance, that high school students learn about Phylis Schlafly and the Heritage Foundation, but not about Dolores Huerta and the United Farmworkers. A report from the ACLU detailing the Texas State Board of Education's abuses of power has not deterred the board, which most recently has turned to an attempt to curtail curricular references to Islam.

But, as Bill Bigelow of Rethinking Schools has pointed out, outrage at the Texas standards implies that curriculum elsewhere is just fine, thank you very much, when in fact, curriculum requirements around the US tend to share a portrayal of the nation as harmonious and just, and of the economic system as providing fair rewards to hard work.

But Ethnic Studies programs, like programs in Women's Studies or Queer Studies, have come into existence in the US in order to rectify widespread imbalances in such portraits of American life.

The economic inequality that mars contemporary life is not simply a result of individuals putting in differing amounts of hard work that has been justly rewarded. It is in large part a result of the cumulative effects of American failures to, as the Arizona law would have it, "treat and value each other as individuals and not based on ethnic background." The willingness of European settlers to attack and displace indigenous people relied for its justification on seeing the natives as what William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation called "barbarous savages." The readiness to enslave and exploit Africans and their descendants depended on arguments that the Biblical Ham's dark descendants were cursed to always be servants of servants. And so on, through the transfers of wealth entailed in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidlago or the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two.

So while it's true that ethnicity and race are socially constructed categories rather than natural or inherent, it's also true that they have real consequences in the shapes of people's lives and societies. As Simon Balto notes on the History News Network

Ethnic studies are … not, as opponents would have it, forums of advocacy for racial separatism, segregation, anti-Americanism, or governmental overthrow, but they do—proudly and unequivocally—promote visions of justice, question the injustices in the world and the United States both presently and historically, and often look to prefigure a better world. They seek to rescue the past from the escapist dreams of those who would assign as dead letters the legacies of racism and racial domination, and pursue what is best in our national historical tradition while critiquing that which is worst. And contrary to aspersions that caricature them as exclusionary, ethnic studies are, in fact, the opposite of exclusionary: they tell us as much about America—historical and present—as do the dominant narratives, and in so doing give a fuller and more nuanced history both of and for us all.

Ethnic Studies programs look toward something like the wish expressed in a 1938 poem by Langston Hughes,

Let America be America again

Let it be the dream it used to be.  ...

(America never was America to me.) . . .

From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,

We must take back our land again,


O, yes, I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath--

America will be!



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