Human Rights

Arizona Superintendent Uses 'I Have a Dream' Speech To Justify Ethnic Studies Ban; Students Fight Back

Hatemongers in Arizona are now taking aim at kids by trying to kill a program that's bolstered academic achievement by Latino students.

Less than a month after Arizona's so-called "Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act" made racial profiling the law of the land, Governor Jan Brewer signed a new law this week that targets Latinos and other minorities, not on the streets but in the classroom. HB 2281 bans ethnic studies in the state's public and charter schools, an attempt to dissolve the Mexican American Studies Department in the Tuscon Unified School District (TUSD), and a move that puts African American studies, Pan-Asian studies, and Native American studies in the crosshairs. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, a former lawyer who is running for state attorney general, has been waging war against the ethnic studies department for years, describing it as "promoting ethnic chauvinism."

"It's just like the old South, and it's long past time that we prohibited it," Horne said this week, even as media outlets reported that Arizona schools are being directed by his office to purge English teachers who speak with an accent.

Sean Arce, Director of the Mexican American Studies Department in Tuscon told AlterNet that the new law is all part of a political agenda that is creating a "toxic environment in Arizona, specifically geared at Latinos."

"I think [supporters of the law] have really been emboldened by the other anti-Latino, anti-immigrant legislation," he says, "and, also, I believe Tom Horne is using this as an anti-Latino platform to get elected to the attorney general's office."

Arizona's law, which was partly written by Superintendent Horne, makes it illegal for a school district to provide any classes that "promote the overthrow of the United States government," "promote resentment toward a race or class of people," "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals," and which "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group." Arce and his ethnic studies colleagues argue that this is a complete distortion of their program -- a program Arce vows will not going away anytime soon.

"We're going to continue to do what we have been doing, because we know that those four major provisions in the bill are absurd," he says. "For example, promoting the overthrow of the American government -- that's ridiculous, we don't do any of those things." (Indeed, as noted by Politico this week, "neither the governor nor the bill's supporters have identified examples where a Chicano studies class has advocated the 'overthrow' of the federal government.")

Instead, Arce says, the 12-year-old program has bolstered academic achievement by Latino students, lowered the dropout rate, and enhanced the college matriculation rate.

"Unfortunately, some fear an educated Latino population," Arce says, because it "translates to a more participatory demographic; a more involved, informed demographic. That translates to possible votes -- and a possible shift if power relations that exist here in the state of Arizona."

Rather than shut down all ethnic studies courses immediately, HB 2281 directs either the Arizona Board of Education or the office of the superintendent to first conduct an investigation to determine whether the curriculum is in violation of the law. "It is a process that the state has to go through," says Arce. Given the political climate, however, he and his allies are wasting no time. A lawsuit against the measure is in the works "on behalf of parents, students, teaching staff and the community," he says. In the meantime, students have taken to the streets to raise their voices in opposition to the new law. On Wednesday, 15 people, including four minors, were arrested protesting in front of state offices. "That doesn't happen very much," says Arce. "You don't see kids fighting for their education."

Some 1,500 students are currently enrolled in the TUSD's ethnic studies program, which also extends to elementary and middle school students, as partly integrated into their curriculum.

"Don't Propagandize Kids"

Upon taking office in 2003, Superintendent Tom Horne lamented that "the progressive movement has de-emphasized the teaching of substance," stressing the need to bolster the teaching of American history. "Our high school students must learn about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Revolutionary War, the ideas on which this country was founded, and the Greco-Roman basis of western civilization," he said in his inauguration speech, an idea he repeated in a 2007 speech before the conservative Heritage Foundation.

In his speeches and articles, Horne likes to boast that he participated in Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963, citing his favorite line from MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech: that children should be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

"That has been a fundamental principal for me my entire life, and ethnic studies teach the opposite," Horne wrote in 2008, repeating the same anecdote to CNN's Anderson Cooper.

Horne believes that ethnic studies is emblematic of a "race obsessed," "downer philosophy" that teaches students that they are oppressed.

On CNN, Horne had the misfortune of appearing alongside the fast-talking scholar Micheal Eric Dyson, who countered that "Martin Luther King Jr. cannot not be used to justify xenophobic and racist passions that are dressed up as desires to reform the curriculum."

"I would say that the xenophobia and racism is on your side," Horne responded.

When asked by Cooper whether he meant to say that there is "no racism in this country," Horne replied, "That's not the predominant atmosphere in America."
  And yet, in many quarters of the country, Arizona is becoming something of a pariah state for its newly reactionary treatment of Latinos. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon estimated this week that a collective boycott of the state could cost Arizona $90 million.

Even amid such continuing national outrage over the anti-immigrant SB 1070, however, Horne insists that Arizona students are being fed a false narrative of racial victimization. "Don't propagandize kids that they're oppressed and that they have no future and that they should be angry at their country," he said. "Teach them that this is the land of opportunity, where if they work hard they can achieve their dreams."

Horne seems blissfully unaware -- or else indifferent -- to the contradiction between his insistence that all children should be treated as individuals, regardless of race, and the new laws that are being passed specifically targeting Latinos.

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. Follow her on Twitter.
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