Banning ethnic studies won’t end idea

My cultural heritage has been outlawed.

That is the clear-cut intent of an administrative judge’s ruling last week that the Mexican-American-studies program at the Tucson Unified School District violated House Bill 2281.
The law was co-written by then-state Sen. John Huppenthal, now the state public-schools superintendent. The bill was the brainchild of state Attorney General Tom Horne. Horne and Huppenthal crafted HB2281 to kill the 14-year-old TUSD program. It was shepherded through the Legislature by recently ousted Senate President Russell Pearce. Gov. Jan Brewer signed it into law.

Threatened with the loss of $15million in state funding if it did not sack its Mexican-American-studies program, the TUSD governing board voted to end it and immediately transfer hundreds of students to so-called traditional social-studies classes midsemester.
In other words, a program that taught high-school students about the history and culture of Mexican-Americans — the people with whom I share a distinct part of my heritage — has been outlawed, some say “criminalized.”

How did this happen?

To be blunt: A relatively small contingent of powerful, bigoted public officials have worked relentlessly to make it happen.

Why did it happen?

It happened because the state’s Latino population has nearly doubled in the past 20 years and the right wing is angry and afraid that it is helpless to stop it. In one generation, Latinos will be 50 percent of the state’s population and, short of declaring martial law and deporting everyone with brown skin, there’s nothing anyone can do to prevent that.

I have taught ethnic studies to university students. The courses I taught included lectures about the brutal treatment of America’s native populations, the inhumanity of Black slavery, widespread discrimination against Irish, German and Chinese immigrants, and the racist treatment of Mexican-Americans and other Latinos.

In the area of Mexican-American studies, I taught students of all ethnic backgrounds about Latino Arizona miners in the 1950s who were paid a lower wage than their White co-workers even though they did the same work.

I taught students how some Arizonans used to hang signs in front of businesses that read, “No Mexicans or dogs allowed.” I taught students how Latino World War II veterans earned medals for bravery in battle only to be told upon their return to the United States that they could not buy homes in White neighborhoods.

My goal as a teacher of ethnic studies was never to foment hatred against Whites or to promote segregation, but to simply educate students about the full breadth of American history and culture, good and bad, so they would know how far as a nation we have come — and how far we have yet to go.

I had that in common with the teachers in Tucson’s Mexican-American-studies program.
I know this because I have listened with pride to the students who took those courses as they’ve recounted how it made them believe for the first time in their worth and contributions.

The late educator and civil-rights activist Myles Horton, who helped train the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Congressman John Lewis, once said, “You can’t padlock an idea.”

Likewise, Mexican-American and ethnic studies are ideas. And you cannot outlaw ideas.

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