On May 11, 2010, Arizona once again became famous for being infamous. On the heels of the so-called papers law that legally enables police to stop anyone whom they suspect is an illegal alien, Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill that bans ethnic studies in the state’s public and charter schools. HB2281, designed to target the Mexican American studies program in Tucson’s school system, “prohibits a school district or charter school” from offering courses or programs that do the following: “1. Promote or overthrow the United States government. 2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people. 3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group. 4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” While stipulations one and two are certainly reasonable educational restrictions, three and four reflect the misguided, ignorant evaluations of what the current curriculum provides for Arizona students.
Defending the bill, Superintendent Horne argued that ethnic studies are not necessary because “you do it in the regular social-studies class.” In a truly inclusive and successful curriculum, ethnic studies would be wholly integrated into the mainstream curriculum and history would be taught from a multicultural, and therefore more inclusive and accurate, perspective. Many have charged that, contrary to Horne’s assertion, the current Arizona curriculum is not inclusive of the histories and accomplishments of varied minorities, which is why the ethnic studies programs existed. It seems that Superintendent Horne, as well as Gov. Brewer and the Arizona legislatures who voted for the bill, are ostensibly unacquainted with the verity of the history and social studies curriculum in the state. An Arizona mother of three children in the public school system in Maricopa County vehemently disagrees with Horne’s assessment of the current curriculum. Her children are students in the Kyrene School District, which is regarded as one of the best districts in Arizona. She revealed to me that her children are not taught much about minorities in their history and social studies classes. During black history month, for instance, her son was told by his history teacher that “blacks were once slaves…and that is all”. The mother insists that “my children need to see examples of accomplished individuals who look like them (other than sports and entertainment figures) and have made great contributions to this nation’s history.” The lack of multicultural education in her children’s school has left her so disheartened that she recently sent portions of a racially-inclusive curriculum to her son’s teachers, a move which, she hoped, would prompt the integration of multicultural course work into the established curriculum. She now supplements her children’s lack of multicultural education with lessons she teaches them at home.
The new law appears to play to the irrational fears many harbor concerning the implications of teaching ethnic studies in K-12 classrooms. One need only peruse the comments written on the Arizona Republic website regarding an article that discussed the new law to identify some of the ignorance and misinformation that enabled HB2281 to pass. Numerous commentators applauded the recent decision, calling ethnic studies racist or a misuse of educational funds. In a similar vein, Horne argued that the ethnic studies programs are racially divisive and promote resentment of whites.
Perhaps this law is not about banning the teaching of Mexican, Asian, Native, or African American history. Is it possible that the politicians who voted for the ban wish to revise the less than pious aspects of America’s history; those historical moments that could render the victor an antagonist? Perhaps they wish, for instance, to cloche the existence of Indian schools in a curriculum that fails to adequately teach history from a multicultural perspective. Off-reservation Indian schools in Arizona served as venues of forced assimilation for Native American children. They were a government-funded alternative to extermination. “Kill the Indian, not the man,” proclaimed the founder of the first school. I can hear all of you Arizonans saying “Oh, is that where Indian School Road (major thoroughfare in Scottsdale) comes from?” Yes. However, we must now pretend as though none of that occurred.
“What’s important is what we know, what we can do, what is our character, our ability to appreciate beauty, that kind of thing, not what race we’ve been born into,” insisted Superintendent Horne. What he fails to realize is that “what we know” completely shapes our “character” and “our ability to appreciate beauty” just as much as what we do not know. When a person is unaware of the contributions of another to the creation of American society, that person falsely and frequently assumes that there is simply no history to be taught. I am reminded of an incident that I experienced several years ago when I first started my graduate studies in history. I was conversing with a trainer at a local gym. He inquired about my areas of focus for my degree. When I answered African American history, he asked me if there was enough African American history to specialize in it. The innocence of his ignorance redoubled my commitment to teaching African American history. His comment was not offered to offend me. Instead, it reflected a dearth in America’s mainstream social studies and history curriculum. This educational deficiency has the ability to breed a toxic ignorance amongst our youth that often fuels stereotypes about minority groups. Multicultural education assists in the dismantling of dangerous stereotypes by enlightening students about the accomplishments and contributions of others.
Arizona’s ill-advised politicians who voted in favor of the ban have sanctioned, through the creation and passage of HB2281, that the contributions of minorities to American political, social, economic and scientific history are immaterial and even treacherous. All children in Arizona have now been denied the ability to discover new role models who can be found in the pages of America’s history. They have been told, for instance, that it does not matter that minorities in this country have fought in every major war to help secure the freedom of America, often despite the fact that their own freedoms were repeatedly denied; a move which speaks to the bravery and tenacity of the groups. Who cares that nearly 1,000,000 African American soldiers and nearly half a million Mexican American soldiers fought for the preservation of democracy in World War II (a fact that I learned after I left the Arizona public school system). Never mind that Navajo Code Talkers created an unbreakable code during the same war that helped lead us to victory. I suppose Arizona students should never learn that Choctaw Indians did the same thing during World War I.
Please pretend that Asian, African, Mexican, and Native Americans never created ethnic enclaves throughout American history with their own doctors, lawyers, banks, schools and businesses (a fact that most Americans are woefully unaware of, but one that lends agency to groups otherwise seen as inactive except during their respective civil rights movements). Oh, and what about the inventions and discoveries of minorities that have improved or saved lives worldwide? Blood plasma is the first one that comes to my mind. Maybe those who seek to conceal the histories of minorities should pretend as if this was never discovered and simply refuse a blood transfusion if they are ever in need of one.
It seems that, according to those who voted for HB2281, the aforementioned minority groups are inconsequential to American history. They are negligible, a mere after-thought in the larger significance of American history. Moreover, the Arizona students who look like these minority groups have now, in effect, been told by the state that they occupy a paltry position in American society. And many of the minority and white students who will no longer be taught ethnic studies in their schools will leave the Arizona school system assuming, like the gentleman who queried me about African American history, that there is simply not enough history from minorities to be taught.
What about the effects that the mandate will have on, specifically, children of color? What does Arizona’s new law say to those children whose history is deemed too damaging to be included in the mainstream curriculum? How does a minority child interpret the ban on multicultural education? Findings cited in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka et al. Supreme Court ruling offer some insight into the matter. The efficacy of the Brown ruling hinged on the psychological effect that “separate but equal” education had on African American children. We can use this revolutionary decision to gauge the ill-effects that Arizona’s new law may have on all minority children in the state.
Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the following opinion in the case: “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.”
If we replace portions of the opinion that relate specifically to segregation with the concept of a ban on multicultural education, but leave unaltered the other portions of the opinion, then we are left with a sadly poignant and historically relevant potential analysis of the psychological implications of a race-based ban on education.
Segregation of white and colored children Banning multicultural education in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored ethnic children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races banning multicultural education is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro ethnic group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation A ban on multicultural education with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro minority children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system curriculum.”
Of course, a ban on multicultural education is not at all comparable to the segregation of minority children from white children; however, the similarities in the psychological implications of both the ruling and the Arizona law are noteworthy and should be considered. When it is sanctioned by law that the history of a child’s people cannot be taught, the child is told by the nation-state that his or her ancestry does not matter, it is not relevant, and it is potentially detrimental to the status quo. Gov. Brewer, Superintendent Horne, and numerous Arizona state legislatures have essentially announced to minority children in Arizona that nobody cares about their history, and, by extension, nobody cares about them. Indeed, all children are denied an accurate, beneficial and valuable education due to Arizona’s HB2281.
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