The Battle Over Ethnic Studies in Arizona

September 26th, 2010 · 20 Comments

Back in May, I wrote about how the state of Arizona codified in law a bill, HB 2281, banning ethnic studies curriculums throughout the state. On Thursday, I had the opportunity to listen to the attorney and two plaintiffs (teachers Lorenzo Lopez and Rene Martinez) who are challenging this law in court at a presentation at Pomona College in California. Tucson Unified School District may be one of the only K-12 districts in the country that has an ethnic studies program for students so that they can learn about events and people who have often been left out of the history books.

The model for the Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson schools is based on the notion of “critically compassionate intellectualism.” Students are exposed to history, concepts, and ideas in class, and in the process discover their intellectual strengths. Mexican-American history is taught within the context of the larger American and world histories, and other courses involving the arts are taught (mariachi music for instance).

The teachers indicated that 10% of the students in the Mexican American studies courses are not Latino. Furthermore, data collected by the district and state shows that for the past 6 years, students in the Mexican American studies program outperform their peers on the Arizona high school exit exam. One of the plaintiff teachers pointed out that although the Mexican American studies program does not offer math, their students increased their scores on math standardized tests. And he felt that this score increase is a testament to the courses and teachers that inspire these students to strive for excellence beyond the curricula that they teach.

Arizona’s HB 2281 is scheduled to go into effect on December 31, and if the district does not comply, sanctions and fines will be imposed. Right now the attorney representing the teachers in the case, Richard Martinez, is trying to get an injunction and plans to challenge the implementing of the law as violating the first amendment, by challenging what is the compelling state interest in banning the Mexican-American studies program, and by examining the educational equity issue.

The teachers readily admit that their program was singled out by the state superintendent of education and controversial Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, who was a leading sponsor of SB 1070. And they provided footage of Pearce and his colleagues suggesting that the ethnic studies instructors were teaching the students that they were oppressed. Opponents of the program have insisted that the teachers were informing students how to be anti-American or implying that they were teaching hate speech.

For more information, check out this video below. Precious Knowlege, the documentary, that was made about the ethnic studies struggle in Tucson Unified School District will soon air on PBS. And you can check out the Save Ethnic Studies website.

Precious Knowledge Trailer from Ari Palos on Vimeo.

My sense is that this particular ethnic studies program was and is not presenting anti-American views, but rather is presenting the side of history that is often left out or censored. When people are denied of their history, I think that there is more opportunity for radicalizing and creating a class of people who are angry than allowing alternative points of view to be explored in a classroom facilitated by trained instructors.

Tags: diversity · Education · racism · Rep. Raul Grijalva

20 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Michaelr // Sep 26, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    Arizona is the new Mississippi…and this is just one indication how far the WASP Christian Right will go to oppress people of color. How Christlike can you get?

  • 2 Opinion: The Battle Over Ethnic Studies in Arizona | Latino News // Sep 27, 2010 at 9:10 am

    […] From: Latino Politics Blog […]

  • 3 Chicano future tense // Sep 27, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    LPB writes..”My sense is that this particular ethnic studies program was and is not presenting anti-American views, but rather is presenting the side of history that is often left out or censored. When people are denied of their history, I think that there is more opportunity for radicalizing and creating a class of people who are angry than allowing alternative points of view to be explored in a classroom facilitated by trained instructors. ”
    My response..
    Why the hell should Mexicans be sweating,rubbing their hands in worry,shaking in fear,agonizing if whites will “somehow” will think we are “anti-american”..”angry” or “radical”?
    I don’t think we should be concerned at all whether or not whites and others think we are “anti-american”…because it just isn’t true!..period.
    No matter what we do anyway,radical or angry,submissive,timid,or accomodating….they’re going to continue to say we are “anti-american”…Why?..because we are not white..we are brown,we speak spanish and we have another culture.
    What we should be most concerned and focused upon are whites and others being “anti-mexican”…in words as well as in practice.
    …they’re the ones who need to stop being “anti-mexican”.
    and we need to tell them…not worry about what they think of us..
    After all,they started the problem,not us.
    They need to change.

  • 4 me angry,radical and anti-american! « Chicano future tense // Sep 27, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    […] me angry,radical and anti-american! September 27, 2010 chicanofuturet Leave a comment Go to comments The Battle Over Ethnic Studies in Arizona September 26th, 2010 […]

  • 5 webmaster // Sep 27, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    I never said that we (or the people in Tucson) should be concerned about being “Anti-American.” I am pointing out what people in the AZ state legislature are asserting. The fact is that these plaintiffs have to respond to that accusation. Simply telling the court that “They started the problem” (meaning Mr. White Man or Mr. Establishment) is not going to get these kids anything in the end. The attorney arguing this case, Mr. Martinez, realizes this and will likely have to bring in witnesses who aren’t Latino to make his case before the judge.

  • 6 Bender Bending Gonzalez // Sep 27, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    It’s not a matter of being “Anti-American” or “Anti-Mexican.” After all let’s remember that at one point AZ had a Latina democrat as Governor. That was only 2 years ago.

    What has happened in AZ is exactly what happened in Germany in the 1920’s. Harsh economic times = blame someone else. Unfortunately its been taken to the level where even knowing about your history is looked upon as something threatening. Personally, I am not a proponent of ethinic studies as a major in college (the latino community needs doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists). But I do see the value of it in high school, where a lot of your character and self awareness is being shaped.

    Let’s hope the law can be repealed in court.

  • 7 webmaster // Sep 27, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    BBG, actually Janet Napolitano, the former Governor of AZ and current Secretary of Homeland Security, is Italian-American. But I guess if we loosely define “Latin” to include those descended from the Roman Empire, then I suppose she may make the cut. Kind of like how people were saying that Justice Cardozo was the first Hispanic Judge because his name was Portuguese. Maybe you are thinking of Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, who is Mexican-American and probably married to an Italian.

    But I agree w/ the second part of your statement. The Latino community needs more professionals beyond those who are only specialists in ethnic studies, but this particular program was teaching self awareness, history, and helping students discover their intellectual capabilities. The fact of the matter is that in the Southwest, this type of program is in line with American history. And these students were improving their test scores, so it wasn’t to their detriment in terms of academic achievement.

  • 8 Bender Bending Gonzalez // Sep 28, 2010 at 10:14 am

    Thank you for the correction webmaster. What was I thinking?!

  • 9 Chicano future tense // Sep 28, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    I too hope the Chicano lawyer wins his case in court..but knowing Arizona I strongly doubt he will prevail in court..I hope I am wrong on this…

    What I would like to point out as a little background is that this Arizona battle is nothing new.The fight for ethnic studies goes back a long ways to theera of the 60’s when colleges and universities across the country were exploding in numerous militant strikes and demonstrations by Chicanos and blacks fighting like hell for Chicano studies after countless administrative,court and legal cases yielded nothing because those in power and making the decisions were racists.I predict the same thing will happen in Arizona.

    SB1070 should give us all a hint as to which direction things will go there..

    I predict,that in the end the struggle for Chicano studies will not be decided by the courts or by lawyers but rather by the “kids” themselves with the support of their families,friends and others who understand that Chicanos have the right to learn their own history..and by doing so learn the REAL American history..which was a history of theft,violence,treachery and vicious force used to conquer,dominate and oppress the Chicano people..

    At the end of the day Chicanos in Arizona will be faced with the same predicament their predecessors the young students of the 60’s faced..that give up,submit or fight back…….

    I would say it is predictable that the “kids’ in Arizona and in those other states where they want to eliminate ethnic studies will eventually if they have the will power,will also have to “stand up ..speak up and fight back..”
    If you study a little Chicano history you will learn a powerful yet simple lesson from the struggle..look at the examples of Cesar Chavez,ReiesTijerina,Corky Gonzales and many,many other historical Chicano leaders..the lessons from their struggles teach us that..
    “if you want to get things’re going to have to do it yourself”
    The “kids” from the 60’s did it..and eventually won..
    Now that the state of Arizona wants to set-back and erase the gains from the 60’s which resulted in Chicano should be clear to the “kids”..that they too like their precedessors from the 60’s will have to step up to the plate politically..they will have to strike,protest,walk-out ,demonstrate …take militant did the veteranos of the old Chicano movement
    freedom rarely or almost never comes easy through court cases…look at history you will see that all great movements and real advancements came by militant actions..not by rubbling a rabbit’s foot,crossing your fingers or praying for some lawyer or court to be our salvation..that’s the easy way,the no-risk way,the painless way for people too cowed,frightened or lacking in courage to fight back..
    Like it or not..freedom demands pain,sacrifice and a great power of will..there’s no way getting around it..
    and the sooner Latinos understand this valuable lesson the better off they will be in the long run..

  • 10 Stand up,Speak up,Fight back « Chicano future tense // Sep 28, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    […] Stand up,Speak up,Fight back September 28, 2010 chicanofuturet Leave a comment Go to comments Re:posts from “The Battle Over Ethnic Studies in Arizona” […]

  • 11 Anna // Sep 28, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    People who don’t have access to ethnic studies classes might not even have access to the books! Santa Clarita has privatized its library system by turning it over to a company called LSSI, which is owned by a private equity firm that wants to steal the pensions that belong to librarians.

    This company, not the people, will decide which books will be stocked in the library. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they probably won’t stock Paolo Friere or Noam Chomsky.

    Without free, unfettered access to information, we will no longer have a democracy. The first public library in America was started by Ben Franklin.

    And nothing in the future is stopping LSSI from charging an entrance fee, running ads, or selling data about patrons. After all, they have to make a profit.

    Currently, the Stockton-San Joaquin Valley County library is comtemplating turning over its library to LSSI. Santa Clarita has already seen a reduction in services and patrons there no longer have automatic access to the LA County public library system as they once did.

    Don’t let this happen to your library! This company has its sights set on the LA Public Library. They want to liquidate it. Don’t let it happen!

  • 12 Anna // Sep 28, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Arnold labeled teachers who were interns as “highly qualified” and dumped them in poor, minority schools.

    SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court has ruled that California illegally classified interns as “highly qualified” teachers and assigned them to schools in low-income and minority areas.

    The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday in favor of poor families who claimed the state was dumping uncredentialed teachers on their schools.

    A Bush administration policy adopted by a California commission held that interns on track to receive teaching certification could count as “highly qualified.”

    The court found that those policies violated the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires teachers to have full state certification to teach core subjects.

    Evidence cited by the court showed 62 percent of the interns teach in the poorest half of California schools.

  • 13 HispanicPundit // Sep 28, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Ethnic studies classes are debatable on college campuses but significantly less so in primary education. For one, public primary education should be as broad based as possible. Should we also create an ethnic studies for the Chinese, Jewish, Blacks and even Irish? It seems to me that the arguments in favor of them are just as strong as those in favor of a Chicano studies program. I don’t think the school has the bandwidth to cover all, so that’s an argument to not cover any.

    Also, while you can make an argument for ethnic studies as an educational good, you can also do so among several other majors lacking in primary education. Why not teach economics instead of ethnic studies for example? God knows that a basic understanding of economics would undercut several of the arguments made in ethnic studies classes (I have yet to meet a person well versed in ethnic studies with even a basic understanding of economics – and I know alot of ethnic studies students). In addition, economics also proves much more beneficial in the long run. The same can be said of other important majors like ethics, business and accounting. Why should ethnic studies win out?

    Lastly, while on paper ethnic studies doesn’t teach victimology, in practice it is a very different story. Anybody even remotely familiar with a college ethnic studies graduate can attest to the victim mentality of students coming out. It’s so obvious it doesn’t need more wording than that.

  • 14 webmaster // Sep 28, 2010 at 8:13 pm


    I believe this particular ethnic studies program in Tucson does also teach other ethnic histories, including Native American, African-American, and Asian American histories. That was the impression I got from the information that was presented last week.

    In a way, I agree w/ you at the post-secondary level. These programs can create their own “barrio-ization” within the student population, where maybe students don’t expose themselves to other disciplines, but this wasn’t happening at the K-12 level in this particular program.

  • 15 HispanicPundit // Sep 28, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    …and you know this how? Have you actually seen the students? Even then, it’d take more than a cursory experience with the students to know for sure. And I certainly hope you aren’t basing your judgment based solely on what the proponents of the program are saying. Let’s not forget these teachers have a vested interest in the program. Trusting them on this topic would be tantamount to trusting studies on the environmental impact of oil from oil companies.

  • 16 webmaster // Sep 28, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    HP, I also have read a few articles about the Tucson district that mention other ethnic studies being taught so it isn’t just Mexican-American studies. This article mentions Native American literature being taught at Tucson High:

    This article here also references African-American, Mexican-American, and Native-American studies being taught in Tucson:

  • 17 Chicano future tense // Sep 29, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    thanks for bringing up the issue of public library cutbacks and of the possible consequences of privatization.
    You are absolutely right to be concerned about censorship and hi-tech “book burning” by corporate bandits such as LSSI.
    I have always loved the public library ever since I was a child it was a place of refuge,education and entertainment for a poor Chicano kid.
    The public library is one of the very few public institutions that I respect and support.Tax money spent on libraries is a great investment in the people.
    I much prefer our tax money being spent on improvements to our libraries instead of such funds being hi-jacked trillions of taxpayers bucks being robbed by both republican and democratic corporate thieves and war mongers with their system of rampant cronyism.
    Once again,thanks for bringing this important matter up!

  • 18 irma // Sep 30, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    Ethnic studies are a good thing. Growing up in Texas, years ago – there was no such thing as ethnic studies. I got that when I went home – as my grandparents and father were from Mexico. I learned about Mexican history and about the accomplishments of the Mexican people that they knew about. This knowledge didn’t make me anti-American, but it did give me a positive view about what I could accomplish without having any evidence from my immediate environment. In Dallas, at the time, the police,
    the fire department, most nurses, all doctors and all politicians were not Mexican. I knew no Mexican teachers and was aware of one
    Mexican lawyer. There was no reason to believe that I could do better than most people in my neighborhood – except for the ethnic education I got at home. This is what people in Arizona fail to understand- the best kind of role model is one that looks like you.

  • 19 IE // Oct 1, 2010 at 6:54 am


    Well put!

  • 20 Anna // Oct 4, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Re: “This is what people in Arizona fail to understand- the best kind of role model is one that looks like you”

    Actually, I think they do understand it, and that’s why they want to get rid of ethnic studies. They don’t want Mexican-American children to think they can succeed ortherwise they (we) might takeover! Thats how the bigots think.

    HP: The issue isn’t ethnic studies or economics. It’s both and more. You aren’t really an educated person unless you know about yourself. Our history is American history.

    You should read a book called “The Miseducation of the Negro” by Carter G. Woodson, published in 1932. It’s about AAs, but much of it applies to us. If you don’t know anything about yourself you will always exist in service to other people, and you will only be able to copy what others have already done.

    For instance Alberto Gonzalez went to Harvard, but his whole career was spent as a Bush family flunkee. He had no agenda of his own.

    In terms of copying, look at George Lopez, copying the old Arsenio Hall Show. He even sits the same way he does on the same kind of seat. Or the Latin Kings of Comedy, or the ALMA Awards which mimic the NACCP Image Awards. etc. How about creating something original, something new?

    ChicanoFT: Make sure that your local representatives do not sell off your library. Some of these City Councils are doing it without input from their constituents. By the time everybody finds out and gets organized to save the library, it’s too late.

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