What is Ethnic Studies?
Recently, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill that would give that state the toughest immigration laws in the U.S. Less than three weeks later, Governor Brewer signed a law that has been described as effectively banning ethnic studies in public schools. Should schools be found in violation of the law, they will be hit where it hurts: in their pockets, with 10 percent of their state financial aid withheld.
Before looking more closely at this bill, let’s review a few basics. What is Ethnic Studies? According to the University of California Riverside‘s Ethnic Studies Department, Ethnic Studies is “the interdisciplinary social and historical study of how different populations have experienced, survived, and critically engaged the United States nation-building project.” The website of the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Ethnic Studies states that faculty in its department, “seek to provide collectively a comparative framework for understanding both the specificities and the differences among the situations of racially-marginalized groups in the US and beyond.”
These descriptions come from university-level programs, but give us a common understanding of the nature of such types of courses. Typically, ethnic studies focus on African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicano Studies, and Native American Studies (although the specific names may differ).
Here is some of the text of House Bill 2281 in caps, with my thoughts:
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.
Sounds reasonable enough. See discussion further on about resentment issues that also apply to hate.
PROHIBTED COURSES AND CLASSES; ENFORCEMENT
A SCHOOL DISTRICT OR CHARTER SCHOOL IN THIS STATE SHALL NOT INCLUDE
IN ITS PROGRAM OF INSTRUCTION ANY COURSES OR CLASSES THAT INCLUDE ANY OF THE
PROMOTE THE OVERTHROW OF THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT.
Well, I would certainly hope not!
PROMOTE RESENTMENT TOWARD A RACE OR CLASS OF PEOPLE.
Promoting resentment doesn’t sound too savory to me. Nor does it seem like the job of a school. But how will the enforcers of this bill decipher whether a course or class “promotes resentment”?
We sociologists, are always looking to measure things; I would love to know what research design will be employed to ascertain that a particular course promotes resentment. Will the law enforcer use his own feelings of becoming riled up when reading a syllabus as an indication that it will promote resentment in others?
ARE DESIGNED PRIMARILY FOR PUPILS OF A PARTICULAR ETHNIC GROUP.
Hmm. Let’s say I design a class that focuses on some aspect of the Mexican experience in the U.S., does that mean the course is designed primarily for Mexican and Mexican American students? Are these classes designed for particular students or are they designed to focus on specific content?
Have you ever taken an ethnic studies class? Are you of the ethnicity that was the focus of the class? I don’t have data on who takes what classes, but class make-up has to be influenced by the make-up of the whole school. At a predominantly white school, there may be a number of white students taking Ethnic Studies classes. In some cases, African American and Black students may be the ones in classes focusing on that group and so on.
Can other students attend such classes? I don’t see why not. Might they feel left out? Maybe. Might they feel guilt by association? Perhaps. For example, white students in a course on the Mexican American experience in the U.S. might feel that because mention is made of white involvement in repression or racism or other untoward acts, that they are seen as guilty by association. And maybe Mexican American students in such a class might feel resentment towards their white peers.
ADVOCATE ETHNIC SOLIDARITY INSTEAD OF THE TREATMENT OF PUPILS AS INDIVIDUALS.
Initially, this sounds fine, except for the obvious that we all seek to belong to groups. Will students who display ethnic solidarity be seen as proof that the course advocated this? Again, what will serve as proof that the course caused such an impact?
More generally, why were these particular items included in the bill? Why are any of the issues raised in this bill associated with Ethnic Studies in public schools? What does overthrowing the government have to do with Ethnic Studies? What does promoting resentment have to do with Ethnic Studies? And what does teaching resentment and hate have to do with Ethnic Studies? What is the relationship between such activism and the teaching of any subject?
Part of what’s at issue in the debate surrounding this law is whether there is even a need for Ethnic Studies. Why should there be separate studies for any of the groups typically placed at the center of Ethnic Studies? The answer, of course, is that the full story of people of color has not been reflected in our history and other textbooks. Ethnic Studies classes aim to rectify this imbalance by providing a fuller treatment of often untold stories.
So why this law? Tom Horne, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, said the Arizona bill was written to target a particular program in the Tucson school district that he says promotes resentment—one that he has been trying to end for many years. I can think of no class that I’ve ever taken, or would ever teach that would obviously run afoul of this law. But if the Superintendent finds a particular Ethnic Studies program so problematic, why target such courses across the state? (Mr. Horne referred to a Raza studies program curriculum as “revolutionary” and said that it creates resentment among students who take the course.) Some writers have suggested that Mr. Horne is politically motivated; he is running for Attorney General in Arizona. What do you think motivates this law?