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What Do Apartheid South Africa and Tucson, Arizona Have in Common?

25 years after leaving South Africa, this educator sees significant parallels between schooling under apartheid and Tucson's current ban on ethnic studies.

Photo Credit: Andy Dean Photography |


On Jan. 13, journalist Jeff Biggers contacted me with the news that the book I co-edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus, had been banned in the schools of Tucson, Arizona, as part of that state’s suppression of the Mexican American Studies program.

The state superintendent of schools, John Huppenthal, had found the acclaimed Tucson program out of compliance with House Bill 2281, which outlaws courses that teach “ethnic solidarity” or promote “resentment toward a race or class of people.” On Jan. 10, the Tucson school board had voted to end the program rather than lose 10 percent of its state funding. Biggers was working on a piece for and wanted a quote about the banning.

I had a stew of emotions: Sadness that, in some cases, the books had been boxed up during class time, with students present. As one student said, “It was very heartbreaking to see that happening in the middle of class.” Pride that our book had been honored in this way, alongside revered texts like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Elizabeth Martínez’s 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, and the granddaddy of Mexican American Studies texts, Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America: The Chicano’s Struggle Toward Liberation—all books that I’ve had in my collection for decades. But mostly I felt anger: that our book had been caught in the conservative dragnet that led to the termination of the Mexican American Studies program; that students were being victimized by the anti-immigrant, anti-Latina/o racism that characterized Arizona’s infamous racial profiling law, Senate Bill 1070; that yet one more attack on multicultural, social justice education in the country seemed to be winning. (And this attack now includes the recent sacking of Sean Arce, the program’s founder and director. See (“Sean Arce—Honored and Fired.”)

The only other time I’d had a book outlawed was my curriculum on teaching about South Africa, Strangers in Their Own Country (Africa World Press, 1985), which had been banned in South Africa in 1986, no doubt because it featured a speech by then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela, quotes from other officially banned individuals, and lessons on the movement to demand corporate divestment from apartheid South Africa.

More than 25 years separates the banning of each of these books, but as events in Tucson have unfolded, I’ve found myself making comparisons between South Africa and Arizona.

Student Courage and Determination

The first similarity to come to mind is the courage and dedication of the students involved in struggles to make education more meaningful, more connected to addressing issues of racial and economic inequality. I traveled throughout South Africa in July and August of 1986, during the State of Emergency, and young people—high school and even younger—saw the struggle to improve schooling as inextricably tied to the broader struggle to improve society. I sat in on a student representative council meeting at a school in Mitchell’s Plain, a so-called “colored” township of Cape Town. These were illegal gatherings of elected student representatives, and South African army troop carriers sat about 100 yards away at the end of the block as a visible warning to youngsters. But the high school kids met together anyway. As one determined teenage girl there told me: “It’s tough for us—such small people making such big decisions.” And big decisions they were: Students inside South African schools risked expulsion for their activism, and students in demonstrations in the streets outside risked their lives.

I have not spent time with students in Tucson, but I’ve talked with their teachers, watched their videos, and read their interviews. Students like Mayra Feliciano, one of the founders of the student activist organization UNIDOS, became politically aware through high school coursework in the Mexican American Studies program, and learned to think deeply about their place in the world. As Feliciano told Biggers in an interview at

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