Ethnic Studies: The Rest of the Story

During the last week of December 2011, Arizona Administrative Law Judge Lewis Kowal ruled that the curriculum used in Tucson’s Mexican American studies programs was biased. Part of his decision stated:

…However, teaching oppression objectively is quite different than actively presenting material in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner, which is what occurred in MAS classes. Teaching in such a manner promotes social or political activism against the white people, promotes racial resentment, and advocates ethnic solidarity, instead of treating pupils as individuals…

Kowal cited a lesson that taught students that the historic treatment of Mexican-Americans was: marked by the use of force, fraud and exploitation.

Judge Kowal’s ruling has placed the entire Mexican-American studies curriculum used in Tucson for 12 years in jeopardy, even though the academic performance of Mexican-American students, the bulk of Tucson’s public school enrollment, has enjoyed significant improvement in recent years. From the standpoint of Mexican-Americans, acknowledging their particular history in America seems to have been beneficial for this group, not divisive.

For many years, diverse people in this nation have attempted to incorporate their stories into the country’s history. Their experiences were not always pleasant, positive or fair, but examining historical facts is an attempt to set the record straight and begin the process of inclusion. Carter G. Woodson began the effort for the inclusion of African Americans into the country’s historical lexicon in the first decades of the 20th Century. One half-century later, students in academic institutions across the nation were advocating Black studies as a valid field of scholarship, meriting its own department. Over the years there has been less resistance to this demand. The discussion in this blog of the little-known events and impact of the Middle Passage is a similar attempt.

To suppress information and knowledge in fear of what responses will be triggered for the perpetrator and victim is both dishonest and self-defeating. It is not always possible to control our initial personal emotional responses to the Middle Passage, African American slavery, the Trail of Tears, a foreign policy of Manifest Destiny, incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the murders of civil rights workers in the 1960s, suppression of the labor movement, or the drafting methods employed during the Vietnam War just to name a few examples. But it is just as likely that understanding these events will bring healing, not animosity. If the past is exposed and examined as accurately as possible, and includes varying and possibly contradictory points of view, the effect might well clear the air. To place higher value on one story than another or to water down the “facts” weakens our grasp of history and lessens mutual understanding.

In context, teaching alternative viewpoints might promote activism and may indeed threaten those who want to maintain the status quo or a level of power. But new viewpoints might just as well bolster the self-perception of the oppressed as a prime point, a good in itself, not aimed at condemnation of others. To interpret this as action aimed primarily at “white people” misses the point by a wide margin. Promoting racial resentment and advocating ethnic solidarity is a severe reduction of the uses of historical information. The “either/or” framework is not always the most useful assumption. [Either you are for us or against us.] Sometimes differences include more than one possibility. We might consider that there are “both/and” choices that better describe historical realities.

In the late 1960 the phrase “black power” alienated many people. This was ultimately not an expression of hatred, but a strategy to make African Americans aware of their political potential. These gains have become not so much a threat to European Americans, than a case of power leveraged by about 20 percent of the American population, arguably benefitting a more balanced society. Just ask members of the Congressional Black Caucus; ask President Barack Obama.

Now the nation is dealing with Latino power; not a newcomer on the scene in Florida or New York or California. If today one third of the young people in this nation are either Latino or Black, even without factoring in Asian or Native populations, ethnic inclusion stands to benefit the whole society. Acknowledging American diversity seems like a first step to a healthy society. Denying diversity on the other hand, seems like perpetuating a harmful mythology. Forging an ethnic identity does not negate a national one. History is an argument in which various viewpoints meet at the table. From Arizona and Alabama’s immigration laws to the campaign now conducted by some presidential candidates, race and ethnicity are unavoidably critical political ingredients. In a future blog posting, a discussion might well include why African-Americans have fought so hard for inclusion. Why do we have both The Tuskegee Airmen and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments? Worth a discussion?


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