Tag Archives: Ethnic Studies

Tuscons Ethnic Studies Debates Lives On


The issue, it seems, refuses to drown underneath the onslaught of information, of fear-based news, marketing techniques and mass deception. In a nutshell, it perpetually fights off our beloved American amnesia. This fact should be appreciated, especially considering that the Mexican American and Ethnic Studies courses were first turned into a “controversy” back in May of 2010, the same time that protestors were hitting the streets demanding SB1070 be vetoed, an image that already seems quite unfamiliar.
Whereas SB1070 settled into our collective unconscious, due to its hiatus, the Ethnic Studies debate and HB2281 (the bill-cum-law that justifies it), lives on. It intermittently emerges from the static just when we deem it a lost cause. In April of 2011, students chained themselves to the chairs of school board members, shutting down the meeting and delaying plans to dismantle the embattled curriculum. Later that summer, and against the findings of an independent audit (conducted by a firm hired by his own office), Superintendent Huppenthal concluded that the Ethnic Studies curriculum violated HB2281, a law clearly drafted with the Ethnic Studies in mind. Though it has a specific target, it broadly challenges any curriculum that takes abstractions, such race and class, economic exploitationand social oppression, seriously.This, of course, overlooks that these “radical” notions are but the basic foundation of genuine social science, as Karl Marx himself is deemed one of three “fathers” of US sociology and Paulo Friere a key figurein schools of education.

After a series of failed appeals against Huppenthal’s ruling, and under threat of massive funding cuts ($14 million), this past January the Tucson Unified School District capitulated, “suspending” Ethnic Studies courses from the curriculum and placing an estimated 700 students in other, more “traditional” (read: whitewashed) courses.Dismayed students, in turn, walked out of classes in protest. And now, finally, proponents of the curriculum claim that the illegalization of the Ethnic Studies courses reneges on a desegregation court order from the 1970s – a ruling which found that Tucson School District was neglecting (discriminating against) its Latino student body.

The intense irony of the situation seems lost on Huppenthal, as well as many media reports. But, we should diverge, take a minute, and let this quirk of fate wash over us. Here we have Huppenthal and his reactionary supporters, legionnaires of cultural jingoism, demanding the expulsion of certain truths, embodied in a set of theorists and now banned books, which highlight the historical import of racism, of colonialism and systematic (socially and juridical) exploitation. These histories, they judge, are inaccurate. They are an oversimplification; these courses look too closely at cultural and legal oppression of Latinos, workers, and activists.

The irony is, of course, apparent: opponents of the curriculum are denying the history of ethnic oppression and class exploitation endured by Latinos (and others) throughrepressing ethnic courses, reaffirming a narrow white and bourgeois history as the only true American history. Having failed to notice the irony of their ideas, Huppenthal and company respond with narratives of subtle or not-so-subtle racism. They draft laws to explicitly repress Latinos, workers, and activistsin the school (i.e., students and their teachers). This is all done, moreover, with economic blackmail – “Do as we say or your impoverished schools and communities will fall deeper into economic depression, your children’s education will get that much worse.”Thus, the history of the systemic exploitation of Latino communities, which Huppenthal denies a sociohistorical importance, is now used by Huppenthal to force the Tucson School District to cancel classes.

All this talk of history brings us back to the topic of American amnesia, our reactionary numbness to historical significance. A recent article in the The Arizona Republic, for instance, discusses the desegregation lawsuit from the 1970s without pause, without a moment of realizing the relevance of this anachronistic reemergence.The 1970s, we know, was a decade of massive social strife and, perhaps most relevantly, home to unprecedented Latino, Chicano, and American Indian activism. Chicano activists founded MEChA 1969 and were active throughout the following decade. In 1973, the American Indian Movementliberated Wounded Knee, only to be met with militarized police action, several deaths, and mass arrests. These and many other events were not happenstance, organic outgrowths, but rather calculated responses to the same legal and cultural tendenciesoccurring in Arizona and across the nation over the last several years. And, now, here we are, forty years later, relying upon these movements’ judicial victories to uphold the possibility that racial minorities can be treated under the law as anything but second-class citizens.

With this history in mind, the perpetuity of the Ethnic Studies issue is seen as something far less outstanding. It is, rather, but an instantiation of larger processes. The issue or “controversy” is larger in temporal and geographic scales, clearly, but it is also larger than our typical political conceptions, or at least larger than what our legal framework allows.We are often surprised by such acts of legal and social discrimination, as if they are occurring for the first time.  We are, moreover, seemingly relegated to particularized responses (i.e., “you challenge Ethnic Studies, we demand that it stays, you racist!” and that is it). It seems that our inability to fully appreciate the totality within which these debates and issues arise relegates us to piecemeal and reactionary responses. Such replies but forestall a cyclical (but not identical) return to these issues – the perpetuity and recurring relevance of racial oppression and economic exploitation that Huppenthal and the like deny. Thus, we come back to the legal debates of the 1970s, but now void of the larger ideological battles that were raging at that time, such as the racism of the State and the exploitative logic of global capitalism.

Now the issue is divided solely between liberal multiculturalists and cultural conservatives (each reactionary in their own way) and is to find a compromise through government administrators and technocratic execution. These characteristics typify a “post-political” debate of policy formation. Ethnic Studies, for instance, is not openly supported because it encourages critical/radical thinking. It is, rather, lauded as a vital tool in the management of liberal pluralism. More than anything, though, Ethnic Studies is supported for its educational efficacy (If we are going to teach youths real history, it had better withstand a cost-benefit analysis!).

Of course, this should not be misread as belittling the liberal struggles that be, because they are, and always have been, crucially important. Even so, such struggles must be accompanied with the articulation of radically divergent future social trajectories; they must reintegrate the radical, broad ideologies around particular claims for social justice. “The political act (intervention) proper,” Zizek writes,“is not simply something that works well within the framework of existing relations, but something that changes the very framework that determines how things work.” If this cannot be accomplished, we will continually be surprised by the perpetuity of injustice, and washed away by the irony of our political existence.