Civil Discourse on Ethnic Studies

January 17, 2011

Dear Honorable Representatives of the State of Arizona, Tucson Unified School District, and the Media:

In light of the recent tragedy in Tucson and the call for more civil discourse that has resulted since, I urge you, especially the media, to take a step back and reconsider what the debate over ethnic studies is really all about: our children’s education. Sadly, I am not sure if any civil discourse on ethnic studies has ever taken place. Instead, all that I am aware of is a very heated and often hostile public dispute that has resulted in headlines such as “The Battle over Ethnic Studies in Arizona,” “Culture War Brewing over Ethnic Studies,” and “The Assault on Ethnic Studies”. It is disconcerting to say the least, and it is time for the name calling, clenched fists, and raised voices to stop — on both sides. Are you really the leaders that you want our children looking up to?

We teach our children to treat others with respect, listen to others when they speak, and value others’ opinions. We do not teach our children to disrespect others just because they have a different point of view. We do not teach our children to ignore others or ridicule others just because they disagree with them. Do you really think it is okay for our children to learn from our leaders in education, politics, and the media that it is okay to display contempt towards others just because they have a different political perspective? Do you think it is possible that those with whom you disagree the most, might actually have good intentions?

Consider this: What if individuals on both sides of this debate actually have good intentions? What if the proponents of HB 2281 are no more “racist” than the opponents are “renegades”? You might find this difficult to fathom, but I truly believe that individuals on both sides of this debate simply want what is best for our children: a good education. Unfortunately, you have made it clear that you do not see eye to eye on how to accomplish this.

HB 2281 went into effect on January 1, so whether you like it or not, the law cannot simply be ignored. As a result, I think everyone needs to pause for a moment and reexamine the actual components of the law. Nowhere in the law does it specifically state that there is a ban on ethnic studies programs. Rather, HB 2281 specifically bans programs that:

  1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
  2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
  3. Are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group.
  4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with the passing of HB 2281, if you simply look at its literal language, there is really nothing in it that should be a new or surprising concept to anyone. I certainly doubt that prior to the passing of this bill, there were classes in Arizona that were intentionally intended to promote the overthrow of the United States government. In addition, while TUSD and other school districts throughout the state offer numerous courses that focus on the perspectives of specific cultural and ethnic groups — courses such as African American History, European History, French Literature, Latino Literature, Middle Eastern Geography, Native American History, and Western Civilization — these courses are open to all students. Surely these courses were not deliberately designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group. So, what exactly is the problem?

Obviously, there must be more to the story otherwise the ethnic studies debate would not be so contentious. But even so, I am still unable to pinpoint what it is specifically that has sparked so much anger, resentment, and intolerance in Arizona. In the media, the debate seems to be centered on a handful of Mexican American Studies classes offered at TUSD, which may or may not be in compliance with the law depending on who you ask. Does this really warrant a ban on all of TUSD’s ethnic studies classes and programs? Absolutely not. Does it warrant a reassessment of how a few specific classes are taught? Probably.

Here’s an example: If a student reported that a math teacher was promoting gender discrimination in a math class, then that teacher would likely be investigated and, if guilty, face appropriate disciplinary action. The entire math department would not be eliminated. Likewise, if a Mexican American Studies teacher is promoting racial discrimination, then that teacher needs to be investigated. The entire department does not need to be eliminated.

TUSD’s multicultural education programs and ethnic studies programs were initially created more than thirty years ago in response to a racial discrimination lawsuit and designed with the intent of making sure students of all ethnic backgrounds have access to an equal education. Unfortunately, even though we are more than a decade into the 21st century, discrimination still exists. While I agree that people should be treated as individuals regardless of their ethnic background, this does not mean we should disregard the cultural heritage of individuals or discount the racial experiences of individuals. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have stated that he wanted his children to “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” however, an individual’s character is defined in part by his/her cultural, ethnic, and racial background and experiences. Recognizing the significance of people’s backgrounds and experiences should be considered enlightening not detrimental.

Arguably, one of the most effective ways to combat racism and discrimination is through education. Multicultural and ethnic studies courses that promote a greater understanding and appreciation of cultural similarities and differences should serve to enhance and improve our children’s education, not weaken it. People of all racial and ethnic backgrounds contributed to this country in different ways and we should embrace these contributions in our education system. Here in the Southwest, where a majority of our students identify as Hispanic, we should not be surprised that there is a greater demand for courses in Mexican American Studies. We should not be questioning whether or not these courses should be offered, but rather, “Are these courses being taught honestly and with integrity?” If so, then let them be. If not, then the specific classes in question need to be investigated and possibly put on hold, but the entire department should certainly not be eliminated.

Finally, what good is cutting $15 million in state funding from a school district that is already in a dire financial situation? The only people that will hurt are the very people you are trying to help: our children. Why should the children be punished when they haven’t done anything wrong?

Before the 60 days are up, I challenge all of you to sit down together and have an adult conversation about this. Just give each other a call and work this out civilly. Isn’t that what we teach our kids to do when they have a fight with their friends? Set an example for our youth. Be the leaders that we elected and respect. Give our kids something to look up to. Thank you for your service to the community and for allowing me to voice my concerns.


A Tucsonan/Arizonan/American for Civil Discourse

“We know that silence equals consent when atrocities are committed against innocent men, women, and children. We know that indifference equals complicity when bigotry, hatred, and intolerance are allowed to take root. And we know that education and hope are the most effective ways to combat ignorance and despair.”
-Gabrielle Giffords

“Our political discourse should be more civil than it currently is, and we all, myself included, bear some responsibility for it not being so. It probably asks too much of human nature to expect any of us to be restrained at all times by persistent modesty and empathy from committing rhetorical excesses that exaggerate our differences and ignore our similarities. But I do not think it is beyond our ability and virtue to refrain from substituting character assassination for spirited and respectful debate.”
-John McCain

“Public service is acting not in self-interest — but on behalf of others… Arizona, like all of America — has been through difficult times before. But, those times have united us, and made us stronger — more enduring. Let those of us who serve our state and country do so in a way that honors those we have lost.”
-Jan Brewer

“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
-Barack Obama


1 Comment

Filed under Arizona, Civil Discourse, Education, Ethnic Studies, HB 2281, Race and Ethnicity, Tom Horne, Tucson, TUSD, Uncategorized

One response to “Civil Discourse on Ethnic Studies

  1. Wilbur

    There is a forum on Ethnic Studies that you should check out! Community members are being asked to voice their opinions on the state law banning the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program. The forum is being held on Saturday, February 5, 2011 at 2 p.m. at the El Pueblo Center Senior Building at 101 W. Irvington Road. The event is being held by members of the TUSD Mexican American Studies’ Community Advisory Board. Not sure if Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, has been invited to attend, but it would be great it he or someone from the Arizona Department of Education came to check out the forum as well.

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