In the State of Arizona the law AZ 15-112 was passed to ban ethnic studies. (You can read the details of the law here.) In my estimation it is inherently contradictory if you’ve heard the stories of the teachers from these programs (I had the opportunity to hear Curtis Acosta at Portland State University recently thanks to my wife bringing me along to an event.) They suggest that it is illegal to teach classes that do the following:
1. Promote the overthrow of 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
Many of us would agree that a public school shouldn’t promote the overthrow of our government. This isn’t happening though. We agree that there shouldn’t be an effort to promote resentment toward another people group. I’ve seen footage of these classes, and it seems to me that this isn’t what these classes teach at all.
The third and fourth points are odd. What the legislators of Arizona ignore is that most of our books on United States history are designed for a particular ethnic group already, namely those of European heritage. Our textbooks are Eurocentric! They depict the history of our nation through the eyes of those who immigrated here from Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and so forth. They do not tell the story of the people who lived here already, unless it is to poo-poo the injustices they suffered as they faced genocide, broken treaties, forced relocation, and as one Native American acquaintance of mine has described it, a “post-apocalyptic world” where their way of living was devastated and they’ve fought to find an identity ever since.
The fourth point falls to the same criticism. If our histories are exclusively Eurocentric then they advocate ethnic solidarity for Caucasians. If we deny that other people came here (or lived here already) from places other than Europe then we are promoting an ethnocentric story.
At that I might add that the second point can’t stand either. I remember hearing the stories of the European explorers and as a young man it was inevitable that the pioneers were ‘good’ and the natives ‘bad’. This is the story we’ve taught our children to justify the establishment of our empire. It is too late in history to rewind what happened, but do we have to lie to our children pretending that our Eurocentric history is baptized? We in this country loved to demonize people like Hitler, but we ignore the actions of generals like G.A. Custer or Presidents like Andrew Jackson.
At the end of the law clause F. states:
Nothing in this section shall be construed to restrict or prohibit the instruction of the holocaust, any other instance of genocide, or the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on ethnicity, race, or class.
I’m sorry, but this is not possible. The legislators can add this to try to cover themselves from the accusation that they are (in effect) silencing the voices of minorities who want to know how their story fits into the broader narrative of this nation. You can’t prevent Latinos, Native Americas, African Americans, and other minority groups from learning history with their unique histories in mind and not “restrict and prohibit…the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on ethnicity, race, or class.” In fact, this law is another form of “oppression of a particular group of people based on ethnicity, race, or class.”
The legislators in Arizona needs a good dose of Lyotard! They want to frame their Eurocentric metanarrative as a universal story. It is not. This doesn’t mean it is wrong to study history from a particular perspective, but that is the point….it is a perspective! For some of our citizens there is no connection to the story of French men coming here as trappers or the British coming here for a “new world”. No, for some their people know the story from the other angle. A story where they lived here in their own land only to have it taken from them. This is as much a part of the history of the United States as the stories our textbooks like to tell.
Our history (singular) is impossible without the recognition of our histories (plural). In this nation we have sought to try an experiment where people of different groups come together to share ideals. Some of those ideals is free speech, free inquiry, access to knowledge and information and the right to acknowledge E pluribus unum— not people only but the history of the people.
For my readers with a European heritage I want you to imagine sending your children to a school where the only history class allowed is one where it is taught from the perspective of Native Americans. It would be a history and one could argue a truly “American” history, but it would isolate your children from being allowed to understand how they fit into the big picture. This is what happens when school districts deny people the right to have an approach to history that considers their ethnicity’s perspective.
If this bothers you consider learning more at saveethnicstudies.org.