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Apr 03 2012

Censorship in Arizona Classrooms

It’s never a good thing when you hear about something like this:

Officials are currently bringing to bear all their influence in the public school curriculum, going so far as to enter classrooms to confiscate books and other materials and to oversee what can be taught.  After decades of debate over whether we might be able to curtail ever so slightly the proliferation of violent pornography, the censors have managed a quick and thorough coup over educational materials in…

These books and materials must be truly, objectively dangerous. What possible subject could be so controversial that books would be confiscated?

…ethnic studies.

Yes, that’s right. Ethnic studies.

Dangerous? Perhaps if you personally are a personification of a majority privilege, if you exist solely as an avatar of that abstraction. Otherwise only in the fever dreams of the politicians who passed Arizona House Bill 2281 in 2010 and the dreams of their supporters.

But what is AZ HB 2281? That is a bill that, despite recognizing within the bill itself that it is the state’s role to impose minimum curriculum standards on individual schools, sets out the following.

States that the Legislature finds and declares that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people.

Note that it does not state that any of these things are not happening in the absence of this law. This is an affirmation of a value, not a call to action.

Prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that:

Ø        Promote the overthrow of the United States government.

I’m thinking they may have a problem finding one, particularly as the Smith Act remains on the books in the U.S.

Ø        Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.

What exactly promotes resentment? Is historical truth disallowed under this law if it justly promotes resentment? If you don’t think that can happen, it might be worth thinking about the fact that the law later exempts “classes for Native American pupils that are required to comply with federal law.” Do we stop teaching about the realities of U.S. slavery?

How about economic or demographic truths? How many people have to be resentful? Do we get to insist that the 1% need to stop being taught to resent the 99%?

Ø        Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.

This would be a lovely thing if it weren’t for the part where white students aren’t considered to be “ethnic” in any way. Designing primarily for them is just fine. It is, in fact, invisible.

Ø        Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

Don’t forget, boys and girls, that if you have an ethnic identity of which legislators are aware, you are not individuals. And if your school insists on acknowledging that you can both identify as having an ethnicity and be an individual, it can have its state funding taken away.

I’m being flip, because I’m angry, but this is really the central point of this law. Linda Martín Alcoff explains for the New York Times:

If the scientific status of race reveals the disconnect between reality, on the one hand, and common ideas and practices on the other, then we need to train our attention on the latter. Race is a socially constructed category with a resultant set of very real experiences. In an important sense, after all, races exist absolutely as social and historical entities. Biologists and social scientists may have rejected the concept, and many may declare that we are now post-racial, but one’s apparent racial identity continues to determine job prospects, career options, available places to live, potential friends and lovers, reactions from police, credence from jurors and whether one can walk around safely at night wearing a hoodie. Scholarly debates have not changed these facts, as the tragic case of Trayvon Martin has revealed.

Race may not be in our DNA, but it is all over the history of Western literature, in Melville as much as in Mark Twain, Charles Dickens as well as Conrad. The white imaginary — in Toni Morrison’s evocative phrase — constructs “Americanness” in racial terms while undertaking what she calls “elaborate strategies” to erase its own influence from view.

The operations of race are thus complex and can take some work — critical work — to render visible.

Visibility. That’s the problem. That’s what happens when you stop taking each member of an ethnic group and treating them like an individual. For an individual, having an individual experience, anything could cause that experience. When you congregate those individuals into ethnic groups and compare the experiences of those groups, the possibilities for explaining the differences in treatment are greatly reduced.

The possibilities that remain are uncomfortable. Some of them are strongly resistant to change. Some of them can only be changed through strategies that are highly inconvenient–though not dangerous–for the majority.

It’s ever so much easier to legislate that schools can’t deal with students in ways that would allow these problems to become visible. It’s ever so much easier to say they can’t say anything that would expose students to reasons they should feel resentful than it is to fix the realities that feed the resentment. At least, it seems easy on the surface.

The truth, however, is that as long as there is unequal treatment based on some kind of classification, those classes are going to continue to fall out. Their members will continue to gather and they will continue to validate each other’s experiences and they will continue to learn that there are things worth resenting. Trying to hide the problems instead of fixing them is only going to give them one more thing to resent.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    D. C. Sessions

    This one’s close to home. Offhand I’m thinking of going through the English curriculum in my daughter’s very-very-white high school and making sure that they don’t teach Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Mark Twain, To Kill A Mockingbird, etc.

    The problem is that this one has no provisions for enforcement except by the State, and Tom Horne is very reliably going to send any complaint like that to the round file.

  2. 2
    eric

    [prevents any course or class that] Promote the overthrow of the United States government.

    I assume they mean violent overthrow. A class that promotes voting for any non-incumbent is technically promoting the overthrow of the current government.

  3. 3
    dubliner

    I bet Republicans would have an entirely different perspective if they were banning Irish studies in Boston.

  4. 4
    D. C. Sessions

    Just so ya’ll know, when we covered “Arizona History” in high school, it started in the mid-19th century with the Battle of Picacho Peak.

  5. 5
    Tezcatlipoca

    preciousknowledgefilm.com is the link to the documentary made about the situation in the Tucson Unified School District. The law targeted the MAS (Mexican-American Studies) program. You can’t have those poor brown kids staying in school and graduating at twice the national average.

  6. 6
    Sathya

    Such is life when we in Arizona re-elect an escaped mental patient to the office of governor. And I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way – she is quite obviously a crazy person.

    Last night’s Daily Show had a great report on the TUSD’s board voting on this. My favorite part is where the guy completely cops to basing his decision entirely on hearsay.

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-april-2-2012/tucson-s-mexican-american-studies-ban

  7. 7
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    So, mentioning anything regarding historical or contemporary differentials in the rights and treatment of people of various ethnicities = violent pornography? Morons.

    Who was it last year, Kansas?

  8. 8
    Tezcatlipoca

    Yesterday the Tucson Unified School District terminated the employment of the Mexican American Studies director Sean Arce.

    http://tucsoncitizen.com/three-sonorans/2012/04/02/mas-director-sean-arce-receives-national-myles-horton-award-from-zinn-education-project/

  9. 9
    Tezcatlipoca

    Actually here’s the link where it mentions Sean Arce’s termination.

    http://tucsoncitizen.com/three-sonorans/2012/04/03/

  10. 10
    smrnda

    I don’t exactly understand why ethnic solidarity somehow deprives people of individuality. What about all those calls for us to drop our ‘hyphen-American’ status and ‘just be Americans.’ Isn’t being an ‘American’ a kind of group solidarity that denies our individuality?

    I remember some guy in college going on about why can’t we all just ‘be Americans.’ As it was the most convenient way for me to make a point, I asked the guy what some words in Yiddish meant. He didn’t know, and I did, which made me think “this sort of points out that there *just might* be a difference between me and you which is cultural.” To me, the guy’s assertion that we just ‘be Americans’ means that we would all have to claim his culture – the real, authentic truly ‘American’ one, as our own, without admitting that it isn’t really true for a lot of us.

    The whole “I just see the individual” is based on this reversal of the truth, where the (most likely white) proponent of colorblindness expects us to believe that they are not biased against other races and that it’s all those pesky minorities who “see” people in terms of race. Perhaps the reason that they do is that they know that they are being seen in terms of race.

    I also don’t think that seeing people and noticing their ethnicity or nationality is necessarily bad, except when a person substitutes ignorant stereotypes or figures that each culture is a Borg collective with no individual variation. Different ethnic or cultural groups have different histories and experiences, though what one knows about a particular ethnic or cultural group should be seen as a starting point for knowledge, and not an ending point.

    Also, that scientists know race is a social construct does not mean that it is not a real thing. It just isn’t a valid biological concept – it still clearly exists in people’s minds.

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