What Do Apartheid South Africa and Tucson, Arizona Have in Common?
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Impressionable youth in TUSD have literally been reprogrammed to believe that there is a concerted effort on the part of a white power structure to suppress them and relegate them to a second-class existence. This fomented resentment further encourages them to express their dissatisfaction through the iconoclastic behavior we see—the contempt for all authority outside of their ethnic community and their total lack of identification with a political heritage of this country.
This is a theme that John Huppenthal, Horne’s successor as superintendent, struck in his campaign ads, pledging to “stop la raza.” This is not just a debate about pedagogy, about textbooks, about historical interpretation. It’s a debate about the kind of society we want to live in and the values that we want to pass on to young people—and especially the role that race plays in that.
As then-Superintendent Horne wrote in his finding: “Most of these [Mexican American students’] parents and grandparents came to this country, legally, because this is the land of opportunity. They trust the public schools with their children. Those students should be taught that this is the land of opportunity, and that if they work hard they can achieve their goals. They should not be taught that they are oppressed.” [emphasis in original]
The law itself, HB 2281, insists on the “treatment of pupils as individuals” and that the curriculum should not encourage students to see themselves as members of racial or ethnic groups or social classes. The values that the Huppenthals and Hornes of Arizona want students to embrace hark back to those of Horatio Alger: Through individual determination, hard work, and honesty, you will rise in the fundamentally just, colorblind system of capitalism—i.e., “the land of opportunity.”
But if we don’t encourage students to ask questions in terms of race, how can we help them make sense of their world—and improve it? Think, for example, about the revelations in the recent Pew Research Center study, Twenty-to-One: In 2009, median net white household wealth in the United States was $113,149. For the category Pew defines as “Hispanic,” it was $6,325. A ratio of almost 18 to 1. Between 2005 and 2009, Hispanic household wealth declined 66 percent, compared to a 16 percent decline for whites. How do we help students account for these disparities if they aren’t allowed to analyze them through a lens of race and of social class? How can young people make sense of the fact that more than twice as many Mexican American children in Arizona live in poverty than white children: 64 percent to 30 percent? Or reflect on what might account for the fact that almost twice as many Mexican Americans as whites in Arizona are incarcerated?
Those who promoted HB 2281 don’t want students thinking in terms of race, class, ethnicity, or solidarity. This is intellectually dishonest. Apart from enforcing historical amnesia, it leaves students without the strategic political tools to work for greater equality. Which, I suppose, is a good thing, if your starting point is to “stop la raza.”
How do students consider ways to make things better without solidarity in their conceptual knapsacks? Whether it’s the abolition movement, the labor movement, the women’s rights movement, the farmworkers movement, the 1968 and 1969 Chicano student walkouts in California, Texas, and Arizona, or the ongoing Immokalee workers struggle in Florida, it has been people organizing for better lives that has made things better, not market forces and the efforts of isolated individuals toiling in a “land of opportunity.”
A few years ago, longtime Tucson civil rights activist Salomón R. Baldenegro offered this brief history lesson: