The Ethnic Cleansing of American Ethnic Studies

The Ethnic Cleansing of American Ethnic Studies

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 “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past” — George Orwell.

The state of Arizona is known for many notable attractions: the majestic Grand Canyon, the scenic desert landscapes, luxurious vacation resorts, and more recently, thinly concealed examples of educational whitewashing.

Arizona, after all, is home not only to SB 1070, a law that will effectively authorize the racist profiling of certain classes of people (read: Latinos and to an extent Asians) under the guise of addressing undocumented immigration, but also other legislation such as HB 2281, a law that will effectively ban ethnic studies programs in that state.

In a similar move, the Arizona Department of Education is also imposing a policy of removing teachers who speak with “heavily accented” or “ungrammatical English” from classes for beginning English students.

Like SB 1070 and the immigration issue, Arizona’s educational policies seem to reflect disturbing wider trends that America is embracing. For instance in May 2010, the Texas State Board of Education approved an altered social studies and history curriculum that some have said involves the rewriting of US history.

These changes include dropping explicit mention of the slave trade in favor of using the descriptive euphemism “the Atlantic triangular trade”; focusing on the positive contributions of pro-slavery Confederate leaders; adding a more benevolent spin on the McCarthyism era; and even promoting country/western music over rap/hip hop.

The impact of these changes reverberates beyond Texas itself, given the state’s massive size and share in the educational market. Texas’ textbook purchases thus influence what publishers print, and many other states even utilize textbooks written for the Texas curriculum.

What’s going on here, and what is at stake in these issues?

Though often couched behind disingenuous rhetoric, Arizona’s attack on ethnic studies in particular represents a broader attempt to silence educational programs that question mainstream perspectives on history, race, politics, or Americanism itself.

The formal language of HB 2281 states that: A School District or Charter School in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:

• 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.

• Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

While seemingly innocuous in word, HB 2281 in practice is targeted against ethnic studies classes from the secondary school to college levels throughout Arizona, and particularly against the Tucson Unified School District’s (TUSD) Chicano studies program. Not surprisingly, one leading supporter of this legislation is the same Arizona state senator who authored SB 1070, Russell Pearce. And another champion of HB 2281 is Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, who has a long-held animus against the Tucson program.

Indeed, on the Arizona Department of Education website, Horne specifically and repeatedly criticizes TUSD’s Chicano studies program for transgressions like teaching students “the belief that there is a war against Latino culture perpetrated by the white, racist, capitalist system”; that “the United States was and still is a fundamentally racist country in nature, whose interests are contrary to those of Mexican-American kids”; and “there is a concerted effort on the part of a white power structure to suppress them and relegate them to a second-class existence.”

In short, Horne’s opposition to ethnic studies in general and Chicano studies in particular is largely based upon the fact that these programs raise issues of American oppression, racism, and exploitation.

Indeed, this is the underlying and unspoken reason why most adversaries of ethnic studies are hostile to the discipline.

Ethnic studies, it should be remembered, was a product of the political activism of the 1960s and 1970s in which minority students began to question the Eurocentric basis of American education in terms of its essential institutional mission, content, and organization.

As such, students launched protests at schools like UC-Berkeley and San Francisco State University to advocate for the creation of ethnic studies programs that reflected the experiences and interests of minority students and their communities, which had been either neglected or repressed by academia.

Ethnic studies thus represents a challenge to mainstream academic disciplines and is often inspired by student activism in a manner that is perceived as threatening by the American establishment.

Moreover, the struggle over ethnic studies reflects the larger “culture war” that has been raging since the 1960s era. This war is fundamentally a conflict between mainstream and minority worldviews and frequently involves questions of race, ethnicity, and power in the USA.

Who has the power to decide academic curricula and classroom content?

Who determines standards of scholarship, teaching, and student achievement?

Who receives funding and institutional support, and who does not?

Whose version of history is taught in schools?

In short, who has the power, and whose interests does this power serve?

These questions will become even more pertinent as the demographic composition of America changes. According to some projections, white people will no longer be the majority in the US by 2042.

For many, this demographic decline conjures fears about the end of white hegemony in institutions ranging from politics to culture to education.

At one level, the attack on ethnic studies in Arizona, the culture war, and the rising tide of American nativism against immigrants can thus be understood as symptoms of a broader political backlash against the multiculturalization of the US itself.

Larry Yu works with the Portland-based organization Thymos, as well as the Asian American Movement E-Zine blog. He is a second-generation Chinese American who grew up in the midwest and now resides in Oregon.